The List Episode 23 – Null & Void (Part 1)

I was a soldier with no name. An agent of Void. I belonged to an organization that didn’t exist. An organization responsible for every major shift in global politics. And I was their multipurpose tool, with which these changes were brought about. Needed an unfeeling, callous, killing machine? I was the man. Needed someone to sabotage a political candidate? Sow seeds of unrest within a population? Or even put systems in place that created more efficient governments that answered to us alone? Give me a call, and I’d be the person that could get the job done.

But I was still Levi Cole, which was why we were going to blow up half the city just to steal a boat.

I couldn’t help but shake my head as I reviewed the sector of my brain containing his memories. Inefficient was the first word that came to mind. I could think of a thousand different ways to accomplish the same tasks while taking less than a scratch. But that was what made him a brilliant choice. His predictable unpredictability had allowed him to tear a rift in the bourgeois movement of superherodom. Sometimes you required a surgeon’s knife for the job. Sometimes you just needed a beam blade and ten tons of explosives.

Normally a residual of the cover personality stuck around once my core persona resurfaced, sitting there like the distant memory of a half-forgotten acquaintance until needed again. But that wasn’t the case with Levi. Whether it was the singular mind, focused like a beam blade on its prerogatives, or the trauma experienced during his lengthy stay, he just wasn’t content with being given the boot. And to be honest, I liked the guy, so I decided to let him run the show.

So back to blowing up half the city.

From my perch on Valor Tower, I could watch every aspect of New City. The city itself was cracking, a fissure waiting to split open and engulf its citizens. And I would be the catalyst that set it off. Cops crawled the streets, hunting for revenge, and taking their anger out on whatever passerby was dumb enough to leave their confines. In New City, the occasional citizen scurried from one location to another, but most kept to their high rise apartments. A pressure pushed in from the outside, as Old City factory workers and laborers lined up in picket lines, halting most production of both cities’ goods. The bombs I had set, of both digital and physical nature, would destroy the artificial barriers between the two cites. A reset button, Levi’s last parting gift for the city.

But that was all background noise. I focused in on the neon mansion that lit up half of New City’s harbor. While the excitement of losing everything overtook the city, I would sneak in and commandeer the world’s fastest submersible speed boat.

The mansion itself had belonged to a tech playboy billionaire that’d gone by the alias Chromatix. Unfortunately the poor bastard had fried his brain trying to upload his conscious into his computer before I got a chance to kill him. But the artificial intelligence running his house continued its due diligence:  dusting the book shelves, pruning the orchid garden, gunning down any unlucky intruders. So it wouldn’t be a total loss.

Silas appeared by my side, seemingly out of thin air. “Preparations are complete,” he said.

“Took you long enough.”

The memories were there now, clear as any real-def hologram. At the time, I had infiltrated a totalitarian regime on the verge of consuming the neighboring territories, and posited myself as a general of the Special Forces. Said regime had a knack for experimenting on its soldiers, and these weren’t your run of the mill cyber-genetic augmentations. The soldiers under me only needed to sleep one hour a week, could metabolize one hundred calories into enough energy for a marathon, and had their field of vision expanded to include ultraviolet and infrared frequencies. Not to mention all the other heightened senses that came in the standard super soldier package. These were not the type of people you could sneak up on.

Yet somehow the little brat did. He slipped through the heavily guarded perimeter and weaved through the barracks without a single soldier catching his scent. All the time with a huge smile on his face. And he had the balls to try and lift a credit chip off of me personally.

I let him get away with the chip, and observed as he escaped the base, evading each guard and running a route that was timed almost too perfectly. There had only been one flaw:  me.

So I found the orphan that smiled no matter what the situation, and picked him up off the street. In secret, I put him through training not even the enhanced soldiers could have endured, and pushed his already high natural limits to unfathomable heights. And one day, that flaw no longer existed. By the time I was done, not even an agent of Void could detect him, even if he was right there breathing down their neck. I didn’t give him a life. I made him my tool. But despite that, he always wore that large unnatural smile.

“Ready?” he asked, that same smile still showing bright against the dark of night.

“Let’s move.”

Silas and I approached Chromatix’s mansion under the full illumination of street lights and the crackling static of unattended building adverts. The first of the cops noticed us, and went down with a neat hole in his head and a chunk of his chest caved in. I holstered my Seiver, the barrel warm from the quick burst of fire.

“You’re getting slow,” Silas said as he blew on the smoke emanating from his antique handgun. “I believe my bullet hit a split second before yours.”

“You can have it,” I said. “You’ll need the head start.”

We continued down our path, tearing through every cop that came our way. With the chaos left in the wake of Arachnos’s death, I’d found it too easy to gain access to police databases. Once in, I’d handpicked the cops on patrol that night, specifically assigning the most vile and corrupt to guard the route to the mansion. Just a little warm up before the night’s true festivities.

The neon lights of the mansion spilled out in front of us now, bathing our skin with carcinogenic radiance. A cop spotted us and hid behind the cover of his car, trying desperately to call in air support. There were three things wrong with his plan. One, when I had hacked the assignments, I had also checked a majority of the hover-tank fleet into maintenance. Two, Silas put a bullet between his eyes before he could spout off anything intelligible. Three, the city shook as the bombs we had planted detonated.

All communication lines, cell towers, power grids, and data stores were hit simultaneously. Ads flicked off. Alerts cut to silence. Office buildings went dark. Factories came to a halt. Bank accounts zeroed out. Pensions disappeared. Stocks collapsed. Anything not written down on actual paper ceased to exist. At the same time, all offsite backups of data would be getting slammed by a particularly devastating worm, ensuring no chance of recovery. The city shut down, and in its place was the cold humming shell of a broken civilization.

The mansion continued to glow, the generators picking up where the power lines couldn’t. Beyond the solid security fence that encompassed the estate, inside the glass and metal domed building, helper drones scurried back in forth, cleaning every iota of dust and making full course meals for guests that would never come.

“The door,” Silas said, wrapping his knuckles against the sturdy gates that turned his skin blue, “if you don’t mind.”

“If you insist.” I rolled a nade, a high impact type with a tight cone of damage, and it stopped at his feet. I shielded my face from the blast.

“You almost got me that time, sensei,” Silas said, his voice ringing with laughter behind me.

The gate hinges groaned as they dripped molten metal. I finished the job with a swift boot, and we were in.

I drew my Seiver and started taking out the visible cameras that acted as the house’s eyes, and Silas did the same. If we hadn’t got the house’s attention yet, we certainly were now. Miniature laser gatling turrets popped up like gophers and sighted in on us. Bird-like hover drones buzzed out from their hidden housings in a swarm. Quadruped killbots, remotely resembling their canine counterparts, encircled us. Smaller rat-sized drones scurried around the legs of the quadrupeds, ready to dispose of what they assumed would be left of our corpses. Thousands of red robotic eyes glared in the darkness, their intent more than obvious.

“You’re going to have to do better than that,” I said, holstering my Seiver. I held my palms open, and a beam blade hilt dropped into either one.

Levi Cole had been good with a beam blade. But compared to him, I was god.

I held the position of each of the drones in my mind. The beams shot out, singular white slats of light at first. Then they twisted and split into several smaller beams, and then split again and again, matching precisely the number of targets. Simultaneously, each strand in my exponentially split blade skewered the red eyed beasts. The white glow, covering the entirety of the yard, turned night into day.

I cut the power to the blades, letting the darkness fill back into the corners of the yard. The red eyes faded, and now there was only the glow of the mansion.

Silas waved at me from the entrance, just a normal looking door aside from the oversized mechanical eyeball placed where the peephole should have been. Silas flicked a hacked identity card in front of the eye, and the door opened without resistance.

The inside of the house started reacting to our presence. Hidden wall panels shifted and trap doors in the floor opened as the inner security drones mobilized, which we did our best to ignore. We wasted no time navigating to the boat room, following the blueprints I had scrounged up and stored in my memory.

Three of the security drones were waiting for us in the middle of the boat room. They stood upright on two legs, but that’s where the similarities to humans ended. Where the head should be instead was a continuation of the angular chest, until it terminated to a single triangular point. Red lines ran down their torsos and along their extremities, acting as their eyes. Their long arms dangled to the floor, ending in talons that glowed a familiar hot white.

Behind them a force field shimmered, protecting the boat, sleek and long, its hull made of black superinium and shaped like a pair of katana.

“Take care of the force field,” I said. “Shouldn’t take you more than two minutes.”

“You always take the fun parts,” Silas complained, but smiled anyway. “I’ll have it done in one.”

I clapped my empty hands together, then held them out in a loose fighting stance. No need to ruin perfectly good beam blades on these machines.

Silas skulked over to the embedded wall console, unfazed by the pair of drones closing in on him. The beam talons created a streak of white, outlining their path of travel as they slashed at the uncaring man’s nape. He didn’t even glance back when the talons stopped an inch from the collar of his suit jacket.

I clutched the forearm of each drone, but didn’t bring their attack to a standstill. Instead I redirected the talons from their intended target to a victim of my choosing – that victim being each other. Beams shredded metal as talons tore into the chest cavities, shorting both machines and collapsing them into piles of junk.

The third drone attacked. I caught its arm just as I had the other two. In a split second my mind ran calculations involving thrust, leverage, fulcrum, mass, angle, and a hundred other factors.  And then I turned the results into my counterattack. I struck with the knife edge of my hand, hitting that one in a million spot on the drone’s body, with just the right amount of pressure. The damage rippled out from the center of my hand, and the drone twisted and spasmed, lashing out with one final attack. Piece by piece, the drone fell apart, until it joined its brethren in a heap on the floor.

“Forty-five seconds left,” Silas said, just as twenty more of the humanoid machines appeared, crowding in at the room’s entrance.

I sighed, and pulled two nades from my jacket. Destroying machines just didn’t have the same satisfaction as snapping actual bones and tendons. The first nade I lobbed into the mass of robots, the second I let drop at my feet. The one at my feet, a screen nade, exploded into a solid white wall, separating Silas, the boat, and myself from the blast of the first nade. It wouldn’t be enough to stop all the drones, but it would keep them from annoying me for a few more seconds.

“Thirty seconds,” Silas said, right on his projected target.

The white wall generated by the screen nade trembled, the center now glowing a fiery red. Silas continued to type away at the virtual console.

“Fifteen.”

A metallic arm squeezed through the ever widening hole in the wall. Another poked through, then three more. I tapped my fingers against the grip of my holstered Seiver.

“Done!” The hum of the force field died, leaving the boat up for grabs. At the same moment, the wall crumbled, followed by a burst of blue electricity that arced from drone to drone. They thrashed blindly as their sensors cracked and popped. Their polymers melted at the joints, locking them in place.

A man, his body wrapped in black electrical tape, strolled through the newly formed garden of sparking statues. I could only tell he was looking at me by the smirk that grew on his face as he turned his head, since where his eyes should have been were streams of electricity.

“Loose Socket. I figured you died.” Of course I knew he hadn’t. There were only a handful of freaks left in the city, and I knew where they were and what they were doing at any given moment.

“I heard you know where Rune is,” he said. “Take me to him.”

Silas glanced at me, his hands ready to work their magic with that black powder gun of his.

“Sure,” I said.

“Just like that?” Loose Socket said, his face scrunching up.

“Why not? There’s enough room on the boat. I take it you’re going to try to kill Rune?” And die in the process? Sure I planned on using him to get a better gauge on how Rune’s powers had evolved, but no need to ruin the fun and spoil it for him.

His eyes sparked. “Don’t underestimate me, Levi. I will kill him.”

“Boat’s ready,” Silas said, still tapping commands out on the console. The hatch to the cockpit slid back, revealing the steering controls and four seats that looked like they could do the job of any top rated chiropractor. “All traps disarmed, system is go, seats are warmed.”

I hopped into the driver’s seat and examined the controls, while Socket took shotgun. Before I could power the thing up, the lights of the house shifted hues to blood red, and access denied errors filled up the space of the walls. The boat’s controls froze up and the cockpit slammed shut.

Silas drew his gun and continued working at the console with his free hand. “I thought I saw something suspicious lurking in the data. Looks like Chromatix had been more successful than anybody gave him credit for.”

A beast of a machine emerged from the floor, with mechanical eyes, like on the front door, plastered across its arms, shoulders, legs, and chest. If you looked closely enough, you could see the deadly end of a beam blade retrofitted to each of its pupils. Well that looks fun.

“Don’t worry about this,” Silas said, still smiling and picking away at the console. “He’s waiting for you. Better not disappoint him.”

The access denied messages hovering over the controls disappeared, and I fired up the engines and opened the bay doors.

“I’ll leave this to you then,” I said, not that Silas could hear me. The boat dropped into the ocean. I pushed the throttle forward and took the boat into a nose dive at 400 kilometers an hour. The seats cushioned the g-forces that should have crushed us, and we left the world of light behind.

Farther we plunged into the depths, until the hull of the boat bulged inward as millions of pounds of pressure tried to turn it into scrap. Loose Socket looked nervously at the now concaving windows.

“Is…is he really down here?”

I flicked on the headlights, revealing the structure planted on the ocean floor that no radar would pick up. It sat low and squat, like an upside down satellite dish, and I pushed the boat under the rim of the dish. The boat popped up on the other side, splashing at the surface of the air pocket.

The cockpit hatch slid back halfway, and I had to force it open the rest of the way with my hands.

“We’re here.”

The air pocket only ran the outer rim of the structure, and we skimmed the path along the edge until we came to an inlet created by vaulted arches. The inlet led to a platform, where I ramped the boat out of the water and brought it to a rest.

Cortege was already there waiting, leaning against the door in her black funeral dress. Over her out splayed hand hovered a metallic mobile that shifted from carousel horses to fire breathing dragons.

She brought her other hand over the mobile, and condensed it into a solid spherical mass.

“I thought I remembered there being some sort of security here,” I said. “I suppose I should thank you for taking care of that.”

Cortege finally acknowledged our presence with a flick of her eyes. “I wonder. Would they have attacked you had they still been active? And will this door open specifically for you?”

“One way to find out,” I said as I approached. She collapsed the sphere into a broadsword and brought the tip of it to my throat.

“And what does it have to do with what happened to me, Levi? What does it have to do with what my family went through?”

“I can speculate,” I said, pointing to the door behind her. “But what you’re really wanting is in there.”

She dropped the sword from my neck and let me pass. Sure enough, the door dilated upon my presence. “I guess that answers one question.”

We entered into a grand lobby, complete with checkered marble tiles and a complexly muraled ceiling. Rows of balconies wrapped around the outer walls. A single ethereal pillar sat as its centerpiece, in reality being one of the most elaborate computer systems in the world. A mezzanine stretched out from the first of the balconies and looped around the pillar.

“Welcome,” Rune said from the mezzanine, spreading his arms out in front of the pillar, “to what we so lovingly call HQ.”

The air started to crackle and fill with an acrid burning stench.

“Rune, I never forgot what you did to me,” Loose Socket said, bolts of electricity jumping across of his body and arcing against the ground.

“Ah yes, I remember you,” Rune said. He dropped down from his perch and landed almost inaudibly on the marble. “You’re the failure that tried to sell out. You know we didn’t appreciate that. By the way, did you enjoy your time in the Tomb?”

“Letting me live was the worst mistake you ever made.”

“You understand that for political reasons we couldn’t kill you at the time. Ah, but I recall now, your family wasn’t as fortunate. I believe Shell saw to that.”

“You bastard!” Socket roared, letting the electricity consume him, turning him into a being of light. He shot across the space of the lobby in an instant, and delivered a blow that shook the entirety of HQ. Blasts of light radiated in brilliance from the epicenter, rivaling even Aperture’s blinding power. Wave after wave of heat emanated from the source, singing my hair even from that distance.

“If you’re done,” Rune said as the light died down, “I have more pressing matters to attend to.”

Now that my eyes had recovered, I could see Rune standing there, not so much as a mark on his form fitting costume. With just the first two fingers of his right hand, he held Socket’s glowing fist at bay.

White orbs appeared in a circle around Socket, then flattened into familiar beam shapes, creating a cage of luminescence. Socket let out one final burst of electricity, carving lines into the marble as he strained his entire being towards destroying Rune. Then the beams surrounding Socket slammed together at one point – that point being Socket’s chest.

“Now that that’s out of the way,” Rune said as pieces of Socket smoldered on the floor, “Let’s get started.”

            To be continued…