The List Episode 24 – Null & Void [Part 2]

The List Episode 24

Long story short, Rune had failed his mission. And it was my job to clean up after him.

Rune tapped his lower lip, ignoring the charred remains of Loose Socket that lay at his feet. “I see you’ve regained your memories. So should I call you Levi, or…?”

“That name’s just as good as any other,” one part of my mind replied, while in the background another part ran through tactical scenarios that factored in my personal arsenal, Rune’s power, and a billion other elements. Most of the results ended with both of us dead. I wasn’t necessarily fine with that, but a job’s a job.

“Is that so?”

“You know I have to kill you.”

“Straight to the point. I’ve always liked that aspect of you, even before you became Levi,” he said, and pondered on that for a half second. “At least that’s what the fragments of my old personality have led me to believe. In any case, you know that the same holds true for me.”

“So you’re core persona did get corrupted.”

Rune had been one of the best. There was only one reason he hadn’t been the best:  I existed. As an agent of Void, he’d helped me tear down regimes and plot uprisings in the rare occurrences where more than one agent was necessary.

When the superpower trend was forecasted to rise, he took it upon himself to attack the coming pandemic from the inside. A new persona was created, and the core persona put under mind locks in the same way mine had been. Bank accounts were altered, records manipulated, assets moved, and Rune was now one of the wealthiest industrialists in the city.

And then Rune had beam technology infused into his body. Illegal only if you didn’t have money in the right pockets; and the perfect power for a master of the deadliest melee weapon known to mankind. A lame origin story was cooked up about his powers being a gift bestowed upon him while excavating ancient ruins, but that part of the trend never really caught on. And in the end, how he received his powers was the last thing on your mind when being faced with death in the form of white light.

Whether it had been caused by his newfound upgrades, or by the necessarily strong personality installed for the job, it was apparent that something had gone wrong. The agent’s core personality was no more, replaced by the persona that went by the moniker “Rune”, who seemed to have goals and agendas of his own.

“How about you both shut up for a second,” Cortege interrupted, her voice echoing in the grand room that served as HQ. She raised her sword and wavered the tip of it between the two of us, and spoke in a voice that would have made any other men tremble. “And tell me what I want to know.”

“Let me think that one over,” Rune said, then held his palm out towards Cortege. “Actually, I decided not to.”

A beam of light manifested from his hand and sliced through Cortege’s chest. Then Cortege turned to stone. My mind replayed the last second, seeing now how Cortege had created the substitute out of the granite floor in an instant, and then disappeared in its shadow. I caught a glimpse of Cortege as she bounced off the far wall and lunged. Beam after beam ignited the air, tracing a path to their target, but missing as Cortege spiraled between the tight openings. At her command, the floor jutted up in huge chunks, providing stepping stones for her to spring off of to avoid each of the hundred beams now surging from Rune’s palm.

The white licked at her dress and nicked her arms and legs as she closed in. She landed a meter in front of Rune, tucked into a roll and smacked the stone floor with her hand. Vines of rock shot up under Rune’s feet, wrapping around his legs and sprouting tendrils that curled up his waist and torso.

In an instant, the silver of Cortege’s claymore brushed against Rune’s throat. “Want to change your mind?” Cortege asked.

Rune let out a laugh. “You’re too funny,” he said.

Cortege snarled as she struggled to move the sword, only now realizing that the blade was firmly caught between Rune’s index finger and thumb.

“I’ll kill you!” Cortege roared, her hair fanning like fire as the floor underneath them started to rumble and debris particles floated in the air around them.

“Relax,” Rune said, “I was only kidding.” He relented his grip on the sword, sending Cortege off balance and wheeling backwards. The sword fell from her hand and clattered on the floor, but she regained her composure and stood to face Rune.

“I’ll tell you,” Rune said, “what you want to know.”

“After becoming who you know as ‘Rune’, it wasn’t long before I realized the memories I had were not my own. Do you know what it’s like to wake up one day, and realize everything you had accumulated was fictitious? It’s not pleasant.”

“Get to the point,” Cortege said.

“I’m getting there. After my discovery that I was not who I thought I was, I did a little digging. I had Synapse scour my brain – much like he did for you, Levi – and all he was able to recover were bits and pieces. But it was enough. From the fragments I was able to piece together the truth – that behind the scenes there are people pulling the strings, calling the shots, and making the world turn at the rate they so choose.

“It disgusted me even more so than the charade I and the other super powers played out. We only pretended to be in control. They had the world by the balls.

“And then my investigations lead me to something interesting – and I think you’ll like this part, Cortege. Have you heard of Project Rhea?” he directed the last line at me.

“No,” I said, but it was easy to see where this was going. Rhea, Greek mother of the gods. And I had a pretty clear idea on who these god-like offspring would be.

“You wouldn’t have. You see, Cortege, people like Levi and I make things happen. We don’t officially work for anybody. More accurately, we don’t officially exist. But when we see a problem, we provide a solution, and we’re trusted to do just that. But when it comes to the sweeping social and cultural changes you see only once a lifetime, the ones that have impacts on a global level, from which we can never turn back – well, those decisions are made here.” On the last line, Rune spread his arms wide, indicating the rows of balconies, the central computer column, and the whole of HQ.

“So you’re saying…my powers were given to me by some clandestine organization?”

“That’s right. The next big thing is you. Well, not just you, but naturals – those with inborn super powers. You were just one of the first, a prototype.”

“And my family, friends – my entire neighborhood – was wiped out for some stupid experiment?”

Rune laughed. “Don’t be naïve. We’ve lost count of the number who’ve died for much less.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”

“Feel how you want, but the story is not finished. After finding out about you, I discovered their plans to use the entire city as a test bed for the next step in human civilization. Planted under the city rest hundreds of devices that when signaled will change the genetic makeup of each and every person living above them. Some will be affected only minimally. Others will rise above, with powers much like your own.”

“So where are these people who are responsible for this?”

“I was going to reveal that at just the right moment,” Rune sighed. “But I suppose now is as good time as any. You really have no sense of the theatrical.”

I smelled it before anything happened – the stench of death – and mentally kicked myself in the teeth for not detecting it sooner. A ring running along the perimeter of the lower level gave way. From that ring rose a single row of thrones, hidden behind a mahogany partition about waist high. The bodies slumped against the partition, some slipping down under their seats as the thrones came to a halt. From the rate of decay, I estimated they had been locked under there for the better part of year.

“These,” Rune said, sweeping his hands towards the bleachers “Were the ones responsible.”

Cortege huffed out a single laugh. “I’m guessing by the clean burn wounds, you’re the one who slaughtered them.”

“Sorry to put a damper on your quest for vengeance, but I had plans of my own.”

“I can see that,” she said, and I could see the fire that lit her eyes, that had burned profusely since the moment I’d met her, smolder out.

“But it seems I was a little too hasty in my methods,” Rune said, “And that’s where Levi comes in. Or rather, the person Levi really is.

“After I took care of things here, I went to disable the devices they had set up around the city. But I’d underestimated them. The devices were tamper proof, and at any signs of outside interference, they were programmed to activate. There was only one way to deactivate them – by destroying this place, along with everything else they had built up.

“But alas, another obstacle was thrown my way. I’d require the credentials only a core persona of an actual agent has to initiate the self destruct sequence. Seeing as how my core persona was for lack of a better word damaged, I’d have to find another way.”

I could see it all now, how Rune had guided Levi’s actions from the very beginning, to reach this moment. Why he had only allowed certain super powers to fight him at certain times, each one goading Levi to a certain end goal. It wasn’t just clever, It was exactly what I would have done.

“I wouldn’t expect anything less from a former agent,” I said, “But if you expect me to willingly turn the keys, I believe you are mistaken.” Even before I said the words, I knew I had already fallen into his trap. If he had made the correct preparations, all he would have to do is scan my brain as soon as I stepped foot on HQ. The self destruct sequence had started the moment I had entered the first door of the underwater base.

“I appreciate you playing along,” Rune said, “But we’re already past that point.”

“So how much time is left?” I asked.

The screens of the central computer lit up in response to my question. There, in large blue numbers, the digits ticked down. Three minutes, twenty-two seconds.

“You know what?” Cortege said as she turned to the exit. “Have fun killing each other. I’m done with this.”

“You going to let her go?” I asked Rune, waiting to see if he’d make a move against her and open himself up. He only gave a halfhearted shrugged.

“Do you think I could really make her stay?”

“Against her will? Not a chance.”

I glanced at the countdown timer for the last time. There would be no need to look at it again – I would either die fighting Rune, kill him before the timer went off, or we’d both go up once it reached zero. It was as simple as that. And then there was the fact that my mind had already synced the time, and I’d be able to recall it precisely to the millisecond if I wanted to – but that was just showing off.

I bunched up my jacket and threw it to the side, nades and all, revealing the beam blade holsters on my arms. Each one held twenty beam handles. One dropped into either hand. The nades would only serve to further Rune’s goal of blowing the place up, and guns wouldn’t really be that fun. This would be a battle of finesse. Whoever made the first mistake would lose.

“You’re still willing to put your life on the line after everything I told you?” Rune said.

“You of all people should know that I speculated almost everything you said before I even got here, and that I had already made up my mind. Besides, you’re not going to let me leave like you let Cortege.”

“I think – ” Rune started, but I didn’t hear him finish due to the wave of beams I sent streaking towards his face.

He met them with his own beams, which appeared out of the air from his palms. They clashed with mine, cracking the air as they struck and causing the beam blades to short out. I dropped the handles while they were still flickering and pulled out the next two. I rolled behind the protrusions of granite that Cortege had created, using them as cover from Rune’s twisting mass of beams. I sent my own beams weaving between his, pressing forward at the same time, until my beams inevitably touched his ever branching forest of light, shorting mine out. One by one I tossed the smoking handles and loaded another set into each hand. My supply dwindled, but with each discarded handle my beams inched closer and closer to Rune’s neck.

I was now within lunging distance of him, and down to my last two blades, not counting the one in my belt. Rune easily parried them, and grinned as I tossed them to the side.

“You really think you can beat me with only one left?” He said, holding the white shards of light surrounding me at bay for the moment.

“I know I can beat you. Your powers may look bottomless, but don’t forget, I helped install them. If my estimates are correct, you’ll be hitting that limit with the next attack.”

“Oh,” Rune smirked, “If you can survive it, then we shall see if you’re right.”

He held both hands out, commanding all beams to focus on me. I whipped my blade out from my belt and sent it navigating the maze of light. Rune’s beams where now inches from tearing me to pieces. My own was now half that distance from his now strained smile.

And that’s when I did it. I flicked my beam off, letting it dissipate before shorting out on the beams that broke off from the attack to protect their master. Consequently, there was now nothing to stop the oncoming swathe of beams. The first of Rune’s beams petered out as his energy depleted, becoming thin lines of white before completely disappearing. But a majority of them still had enough energy to rip through me before breaking apart.

I lost count of the holes in my torso at about a hundred, and collapsed face first into the blood that had already started pooling at my feet.

“You were so close,” Rune clapped his hands. “I really didn’t think you had it in you.”

My breathing slowed to heavy and ragged rasps; whatever was left of my lungs was beyond collapsed. Blood spurted from a hundred severed veins, draining me of what little oxygen I had left. But I still had enough to click my beam back on, shooting out one single length of white that carried the entirety of my hope.

Rune splayed his fingers out in front of his face, as if to stop it, and his eyes widened in surprise. That look of surprise quickly change back to his usual, “I’m better than everybody else,” demeanor, and the beam stopped just shy of its target, as if hitting an invisible wall.

“I must have forgotten to mention that power,” Rune laughed. “To be fair, it’s the first time I’ve had to use the force field I had implanted for scenarios such as this.”

I thought of a hundred smart comebacks, and hacked up a bloody chunk of lung instead.

“You’re not allowed to die yet,” Rune said, “At least have the decency to wait until the finale I orchestrated.”

He kicked me in the side, flipping me to my back, and I felt what was left of my ribs disintegrate under the power of his boot. He stepped over me and bent to grab me by the tattered remains of my shirt. My hands swiped at the surrounding area instinctively, searching for a hunk of granite or something that could bash Rune’s brains in.

But what I found was better. Much better.

My hand met the cold metal hilt of Cortege’s sword. I wrapped my fingers around it and focused what was left of my life into moving that arm. The swing was weak and awkward, but it caught Rune off guard. He pulled up at the last second, and the tip grazed his adam apple. Yet I still felt resistance against the unnatural sharpness of the blade.

Blood poured down on me, and I realized Rune’s hands still grasped me by the collar. His breathing became quick and his face turned white as he stared at the two stumps where his forearms used to be.

Death wasn’t even on my mind at the moment. I wrapped my legs around his and pulled him to the ground. I flipped back to my stomach, and my intestines gushed out in chopped loops. They dragged the ground, collecting dust and bits of gravel as I elbow crawled over to Rune. He was still sucking air in panicked bursts when I straddled him and placed my hands on his throat. His stumps slapped at my arms as I squeezed, squirting streams of blood that mixed with my own. His body flailed, his legs kicked, but I bore down, yelling at the top of my lungs despite the oxygen depletion.

Seeing his eyes roll into the back of his head reminded me of a particular mission we had taken on together. We had come up against a nasty convoy of cybernetic assassins, and managed to use most of our weapons while taking the majority of them out. Rune had decided to take the leader on one on one. He found himself in a similar position to what he was in now, and I remembered laughing as the cyborg strangled the life out of him. I didn’t interfere, for that would have been worse than death for the agent that became Rune. When it looked like he was finally about to die, Rune started to laugh himself, and nonchalantly reached up to the cyborg’s head and snapped his neck.

That was about as close to sentiment as I was going to come, and just as quickly as the memory came, it faded, along with the last of Rune’s life.

I let my hands dangle at my sides, cramped from the thousands of pounds of pressure I had just applied, and panted for what little air I could grab. I checked the countdown time. Twenty seconds. I let out a wet laugh, knowing that would be plenty of time. I somehow found the energy to wobble to my feet and shamble over to the computer terminal. I started typing at the consoles inputs, tearing through layer after layer of security, until I finally made it to the code I was looking for. I hit the keys to execute the program. That was when the countdown reached zero, and HQ imploded.

EPILOGUE

The Doctor drew in a long breath off his cigarette, turning half of it to ash that he flung off to the side.

“That should just about do it,” he said. “Better than new, if I don’t say so myself.”

His patient sat up on the gurney, rotating his shoulder. He looked over to his visored cowl, battered and cracked from a hundred skirmishes, all within the last couple of months. “At least until the next idiot with herculean strength decides to wreck downtown. I wouldn’t have minded superinium skin, or at the very least a healing factor.”

The doctor finished his cigarette and pulled a bent one out from his shirt pocket.

“I guess you wouldn’t have much of a job, then, would you,” Aperture said, to which the Doctor shrugged with a grin as he held his cigarette out for a light. Aperture sighed, and clicked his fingers, producing a hot orb of compressed photons in midair that turned the tip of the tobacco to ember.

“You should really cut back on those. Bad for your health,” Aperture said, examining the tips of his own fingers. He had been scared at first when he discovered his new power, but now he viewed it with a sort of ironic curiosity. Of course the ex-fireman would be bestowed with this power, he mused at the cliché.

The Doctor chuckled – his lungs had never felt stronger in his life. A result of the Big Change, he figured, but it was costing him a small fortune just to get a miniscule buzz from the dozens of cartons he went through a day.

“You shouldn’t be the one lecturing me on health. You’re just as reckless as our old friend was.”

“Well, somebody’s got to stop the freaks that don’t know how to control their powers yet. This city’s going to take a lot of work as it is without them. I can be thankful at least that Cortege and her band of new bloods have stayed in the shadows. Wouldn’t mind if they lent a helping hand, but that’s better than the alternative…”

Aperture hopped off the gurney and pulled the cowl over his face. At the mention of Levi, a flood of thoughts came over him. He had been wrong about Levi. He had been wrong about a lot of things. After Force had crushed Aperture’s spine, Levi had brought him in to the Doctor to fix him up. And then there was the night two months ago that threw the city into chaos. He didn’t know what exactly caused it all, but he’d put good money on Levi having a hand in the recent changes that crashed down like a tsunami on the entire city – and possibly the world.

“Speaking of our old friend,” Aperture said, breaking away from his reverie, “Any word from him?”

“Not since the Big Change,” the doctor said. “But I have a feeling, down in this new indestructible gut of mine. It’s telling me that we haven’t seen the last of him yet.”

 

THE END