Iron’s breathing was heavy. Panting, she leaned against the wall. It wasn’t that she was tired. In this environment, she could probably sprint for days.
It was mental exhaustion. That must have been it. She was just having to deal with too much lately. Not only did the one last thing she wanted to do end up as a surprising failure, but now there were these magic soldiers of Reborn, most of them unsettlingly friendly, and the whole magic thing in itself.
Anima. The whole thing was crazy, and instead of just calling it “magic”, they had to give it a special, fancy-sounding name. She should have just left when they gave her the choice. Then she wouldn’t be dealing with this.
Yes, leave, that’s what she needs to do. Leave and finish what she started two months ago. She’s guaranteed to get it right this time. Why wait? Just finish this, because Mortar’s depending on everyone, and then she’s done.
A voice broke her thoughts, and a hand shook her from her reverie. She looked up through the visor of her Savage suit into the plain heavy helmet of Cartel’s Forefront armour.
“We need to go. Are you gonna be alright?” he asked, heavy gloved hand still on her shoulder.
It took Iron a moment to figure out what he said. She learned English in a very different accent, and growing up with an Abominable language made accents a problem. Phonetics were everything among her people, and even the Cartel’s slight pronunciation difference was like a different language to her. “Australian”, he’d called it.
Luckily, it only took a second to figure this one out, and she nodded.
“Still not sayin’ anything? Well, if it works you, I suppose,” he said, taking his hand away. “We need to finish this though. People’s lives are ridin’ on this, and we are, truly, the only people that have the ability to stop it. You remember what Mortar said?”
Iron nodded again, reaching down to the floor where she dropped her gun.
The man wasn’t just a team player. He’d been with Reborn for five years, and was assigned as Iron’s partner as soon as she arrived. Everyone in Aspis team was friendly, but something about Cartel made his attitude seem more genuine. For two months he’d looked after her through the depression that set in after her death and helped her with her training. He would make conversation, even though she almost never spoke back. He could talk when he wanted to in a way that she didn’t feel obliged to respond.
He was a friend.
He looked around quickly to make sure they were clear.
"Alright. I know this is hard. I still have nightmares sometimes from my first mission. This guy here" Cartel nudged a the newly dead man on the floor with a boot. “It’s not pretty, but it was the only way. Now come on, we need to go.”
He took hold of his own gun, a shotgun of some kind, with both hands again, and continued along the hallway.
They were in the most extensive tunnel Iron had ever seen. More like a labyrinth, really. The nearby city had no idea what ran so close to them, even if it did take up kilometres of space, both in length and depth.
They were almost at the end, though. Cartel killed six people to get them this far. Six people that were alive one moment, and then dead the next, without ever knowing.
She wondered why they hadn’t had more resistance so far. From what she understood, there was a large group searching for whatever was kept down here, and it didn’t make sense to her for them to just split up like this. Maybe they’re leaving a trail of people, someone to both keep watch and help them find their way if they need to back track.
Cartel ran in front of her, his grip tight on his gun, keeping it in pointed in front of them at all time. Between the two of them, they had the perfect weapons for such close quarters. Or they would, if Iron could bring herself to fire hers.
“Take it slow” Cartel told her when they split from the rest of Aspis. “Ease yourself into things”.
If this was taking it slow, what would it be like if they just dropped her into it?
“Seldom checking in,” her helmet radio suddenly said, making her jump. “We just eliminated the last ones along our tunnel. This section’s clear.”
“Well done, you two,” came Mortar’s voice. “Cartel, that means you and Iron have the last group, and it looks like they’ll be the largest, so we’re coming to give you a hand. Find them, but wait for us before engaging. If they’ve got what they came for, we’ll need every man there.”
“On it, sir. See you soon,” Cartel replied, still running in front of Iron.
It took them a couple more minutes to reach their objective, at which point they slowed to a careful walk. They turned the last corner of the maze and were met with a large stone door, which was already open. Cartel grabbed Iron’s arm and pulled her back around the corner when he saw how many people were ahead of them.
She could feel her heart beating faster. Everyone in that room had weapons, and she could only see some of them. What if they saw her? What if they were waiting for them?
“Alright, a few more of them than I thought,” he said, his voice carried over their radios so the enemy wouldn’t hear him.
“We’re just gonna sit tight here, wait for the others, alright?” he said.
Iron was on edge already, but this was just too much.
She hated this helmet. It filtered the air too much, cut off too much vision.
How was anyone expected to survive with these disgusting things stopping someone from smelling their surroundings? Tasting the air? What if someone had eyes at different positions? Or more than just two?
Get out. Survive.
She was breathing heavily again. She knew why she was stressing out. Sensory deprivation. Many of her kind panicked when they couldn’t make full use of all their senses.
“Iron, listen,” Cartel started again. “It’s gonna to be alright.”
He was just trying to make her feel better. He’d been doing that since she came to Aspis. How could he possibly say that after seeing how many of them were over there?
She sighed. She needed to let him know she was alright.
She heard an explosion coming from the corner, but what stopped her midsentence was seeing the blood burst from Cartel’s neck. With a series of clunks, he went down, and lay still except for one or two twitches.
Iron was stunned. For a moment, she did nothing. Then she fell to her knees, dropping her gun again.
“Oh no,” she whispered, unable to think of anything else. “No. No no no no no.”
“You must be new to this,” a voice said from her left.
She felt a yank as a hand pulled her arm, lifting her back to her feet.
“A veteran would have killed me by now,” the voice said.
Iron looked from Cartel up to whoever was grabbing her. It was a single human, a man with a magnum in hand, pulling her into the other room.
“Kind of funny, isn’t it? I walked around this corner, perfectly ready to die, and now I’ve got two of you,” the man said, dragging her through the door in front of so many others. “Funny. Sorry, that’s not the right word, very inappropriate. Ironic? That’s it.”
What the hell was he talking about? Doesn’t he realise what he did?
You need to run.
Legs shouldn’t feel this heavy. Weren’t the others supposed to be here? Where were they?
“Don’t take this personally, but this thing’s going to be hungry, and we’d prefer not to feed it any of our men,” he continued.
What the hell’s down here?
Too many. Running isn’t an option.
The room was huge. Not high-ceiling and impressive architecture huge, but very wide with many old torches, just like the maze had. Taking up most of the space was a large pit, mostly filled with water. A large silver orb was suspended from the ceiling by a chain over the pool, rusty smears covering the metal at seemingly random spots.
“We can use this one, sir,” the man dragging her said, presenting his captive to a very tall man.
“Good. I wasn’t looking forward to killing my own people just so that... Thing would be comfortable,” the tall one said, turning away from the lake to look at them.
Iron looked up, surprised, into a freakish face. A face that grew hard shells over human cheekbones and chin, with yellow skin and wide set eyes that moved back and forth independent of one another, like a chameleon’s. The nose was almost flat against his face and had huge nostrils that flared with each breath. His lips were thin and his mouth wide, far wider than should be on a head that shape.
Iron assumed he was a Tiri from behind, his long, dark hair obscuring his features. Instead, she was met with one of her own.
“Why aren’t you trying to kill us yet?” the Abominable wondered out loud.
“A new recruit, I think, sir. She actually reacted like a normal person when I shot the other one,” the first man said.
“You managed to kill one with a single shot? I’m quite impressed,” the monstrous creature shifted its gaze to Iron, both eyes snapping to look at her.
“Human, judging by the size of her,” he said. “Just as well, I suppose.”
Human? Iron thought. Of course, the suit. He couldn’t see her.
He turned back to the pool of water, pointing with a four fingered hand at the silver orb.
“I suppose you don’t yet know what that is, do you? We only just found it ourselves. It’s an interesting piece of history, really. I always thought Tiri were the masters of wanton destruction, with their powders and chemists, but to think humans could have produced such a disgusting creature, one so capable of tearing the world down around it, is a truly disturbing notion to me,” the Abominable ranted.
Iron simply couldn’t move. Every one of her overpowering instinct were screaming at her to get away, to do something, to survive, but she was stunned by her captors. How could they shoot a man and just keep going like nothing happened?
Too many to run, you need to fight your way out of this.
“Your organisation has kept this thing here, imprisoned it. You see that ball?” he continued. “Do you understand what that means? Monsters, the very dead themselves, for all their wretched power, could not kill this one abomination, the best they could do was trap it. And not forever either. That ball is a silver shell, filled with mercury, smeared on the outside with the still living blood of the most powerful of your kind, all to keep the creature inside it at bay.”
“But even this wasn’t enough. The pool was the last resort. Time itself was their last resort. It’s like an hourglass, you see. Water falls, one drop at a time, from the roof, flowing down the ball, into the pool, keeping the seal alive with each drop. It was a desperate ploy, buying time until someone- anyone could find a way to kill it. And when the pool fills up, the binding will break, and the beast will be free again. To look at it, I would guess there are at least a few hundred more years left, but we’re here to move things along.”
Move it along? Why would anyone do that? If it’s dangerous, leave it here.
“Sadly, though, you have come to stick your noses into things. Do you know who we are? We are the only ones who, since its formation so many millennia ago, have threatened Reborn itself. This creature is intelligent, we can free it in exchange for its aid against you. Now you’re probably wondering why we would want Reborn gone. Not only are you all an affront to every god conceived, but you are dangerous creatures with far too much power. How many innocent lives have been ended because your kind lose their grip on their minds?”
“I have done my research. I know Reborn fights to protect, but it destroys far too much. The living should deal with the living, and the dead with the dead. Trust me when I say that we are perfectly capable of looking after ourselves, and that the universe will be a safer place without you all. And without this monster.”
You need to fight your way out. You need to survive. You can’t die. That could be the end of us all.
The Abominable reach to Iron’s waist, drawing her cutlass. The weapon was made from treated steel and exposure to her anima, and formed a vicious looking sword, a perfect, razor sharp curve on the blade, with a serrated back that inspired fear. The metal itself even darkened.
“This is quite an interesting weapon. Very intimidating, but useless in the end. Impractical. The back would lodge in bone too easily and be too difficult to take back out,” he mused, mocking his prisoner with indifference.
I just need to wait for the right moment, Iron thought.
“I would like to tell you that I’m sorry things had to be this way. You fight to protect people, but so do we. Once we can figure out-“
The Abominable’s monologue was cut off by a sudden scream near them.
Just at the corner of her visor, she could see someone step through the wall, withdrawing a knife from a screaming body, all eyes suddenly on that spot.
Iron knew what to do now. She’d practised this kind of thing at the base.
Her cutlass was torn from the grip of the Abominable, and was suddenly buried in the chest of the man holding her arm.
Hell broke loose as men all around the room opened fire on armoured newcomers stepping silently through the walls.
The Abominable leader swore, a disgusting sound generated from his numerous sets of vocal chords, and drew his own pistol from his heavy jacket.
Iron tried to throw herself aside before he could fire, but he just followed her with the gun.
He can’t kill you.
Iron froze mid-roll, looking up at her assailant. Of course he couldn’t hurt her. They were of the same blood. They looked different, but they all knew how to tell. Few things linked their kind together, but one that did was the call of survival. They needed to survive. There were no sacrifices, no compromises, all Abominables need to survive as long as they can. Everyone is necessary. Losing just one could be the difference between salvation and extinction.
Pain shot through her leg. The bullet from the gun before her tore into her thigh.
He can’t kill you.
He shot me.
He won’t kill you.
Iron didn’t know what was happening any more. It was all just sounds in her ears as she watched him line up another shot. It felt like an eternity.
He won’t kill you.
He’s going to kill me, she thought. It was a strange thought, made of words that shouldn’t be applied to her kind.
You’re still safe. He can’t hurt you.
The pain was still in her leg. He’d shot her. He was actually going to kill her.
He will kill me, unless I do something.
Safety in numbers.
No one was coming to save her. His finger was on the trigger, about to squeeze. She needed to do something.
She acted. She didn’t know what she was doing. A blur of motion, suddenly he wasn’t in front of her, but above her.
He can’t do anything now.
He still had his gun. He was swearing and waving back and forth in the air, but he was trying to aim. He was going to kill her.
He pointed the gun at her again. She panicked, throwing her arm wildly.
The gun wasn’t pulled away, it wasn’t broken. The gun was fine. His hand, though. It was crushed. Four fingers, suddenly useless as he screamed in pain and the pistol fell to the ground.
He’s going to kill me.
He wants me to die.
The floating man screamed again as his other hand was crushed, this time followed by a leg being inverted at the knee.
Stop! We all need to live!
He needs to die.
He screamed again, back arching to an unnatural angle.
Why was everything so quiet?
Don’t kill him!
It wasn’t just her, was it? They killed Cartel. They want to kill Mortar, and Seldom, and Oso and everyone on her team. Everyone in Reborn. Everyone like her.
He is like you.
Iron stared into the face of her prisoner. Everything was silent. She stared, and her lip curled. Her brow knotted. She hated this. She hated the sound of the guns. The silence that threatened to crush her. The screaming, disgusting thing hovering above her. He was not like her.
She needed to kill him.
You need to let him live!
His back arched again, renewing his cries.
Iron’s hands moved to her head. She was sitting up now, holding her helmeted head. Why did it hurt so much? All she knew was that the thing before her needed to die.
There was fear in his eyes. It was glorious. All she needed to do was...
Her breathing was heavy again. Her head felt like it would explode. Something was screaming at her. Every thought said kill, every instinct said spare.
He’s finished already.
Why are you waiting? Isn’t it obvious?
You know what you need to do! Do it!
“STOP!” Iron shrieked, screwing her eyes shut, throwing herself onto her back again.
She lay, gasping for breath. She thought nothing. Felt nothing. Just lay still.
When she caught her breath, she began to think again. What happened? Why was it so quiet now when there were gunshots only a minute ago? They were all still there, weren’t they?
She sat up. Her brain hurt. Not her head, it wasn’t a headache. It was like a stabbing pain deep in her brain.
She looked at the floor before her. It was drenched with something. It was nearly colourless, holding a familiar, faint red tinge. And it was oozing from two halves of a dead Abominable. Two halves, torn apart across the waist, leaked Abominable blood.
A hand rested on her shoulder.
“Cartel?” she muttered as she processed what just happened.
“Sorry, Iron. Mortar,” an old voice said. One that was strong, authoritive, and trying very hard to be gentle.
“What just happened?”
“You could say we won. That was an impressive display. I think his remaining men don’t want to fight anymore,” Mortar said.
Iron looked around for the first time, seeing people that once held guns, but now held their hands in the air.
“Fear’s a powerful thing, Iron,” he said.
“I killed him. He was one of mine, and I killed him,” Iron mumbled, holding her aching head again.
“I know. It’s not pretty, Iron. But you proved something here. You are someone who does what others can’t. I’m old, girl, but I’ve only seen a handful of people who can do something like this, even in Reborn,”
“Like what? Murder?” Iron said. She was having trouble keeping her voice smooth, the other chords randomly tweaking in the middle of words.
“I know what Abominable instincts are like. Survival is everything, no matter what. You defied the most powerful instincts the galaxy has thrown together. That makes twice now. You’re an Abominable who can look death in the eye and smile. Maybe not yet, not easily, but you can do it.”
“I killed an Abominable. I can’t be one. I was never one. I was raised by humans, I’m six years old and I only now finished changing for the first time. I’m a freak, a genetic mistake, an evolutionary dead end.”
“A dead end. That’s right. You cornered him. He had nowhere to go. He was afraid. We need people like you, Iron. People who can make our enemies afraid. All these people who’ve surrendered here because they saw you tear him apart? We don’t need to kill them now. We need people who can spread fear, and the more that are afraid, the more that run. The more that run...” Mortar trailed off, clearly prompting Iron to speak.
“The fewer that need to die,” she finished. That was strangely wise. She didn’t think of it like that before.
It made a lot of sense. It was just another way of helping others survive. They see one torn apart and don’t want to end up like that. They surrender, they don’t need to die. Survival.
“We need to get that leg taken care of,” Mortar said, standing up.
Iron stood too, much to Mortar’s surprise, waved away his offered hand, and limped behind him to the doorway she came through.
Ardent, their medic, leaned over Cartel. His helmet had been removed to allow easier access to his wound. His eyes were open, and some blood trailed from the sides of his mouth.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Ardent said, looking up. “The bullet went right through his spine. Fourty-five calibre from maybe three feet away... He was probably dead before he hit ground. Nothing any of us could do.”
Oh no, Iron thought. Her mind went blank again, as if she’d just seen blonde man lying dead before her shot again.
Mortar was silent for a moment.
“Patch Iron’s leg up, will you?” he said, turning back around.
“I’m sorry, Iron. I really am. But I couldn’t do anything,” Ardent muttered as he eased Iron back down to sitting position.
Normally having cells regrown at such speed like this was excruciating, to say nothing of removing the bullet. Iron didn’t feel a thing though. She was numb. Her mind completely blank. All she could do was stare into Cartel’s open eyes.
They were silver earlier. For some reason, they were green now. They looked natural, deep, but empty.
“I hoped I’d never see this place again,” Mortar said. “It was a terrible place last time, and it still is. It’s these kinds of things that make me glad I forget.”
Forget. She can’t forget this. Cartel remembered his first mission. She needed to remember this, for his sake and hers.
She was a monster now. She was the story parents told children to make them behave. She was the reason why people were afraid of the dark.
Iron opened her eyes.
It was the same again. Another nightmare. Her first mission.
She stared into the darkness, silence once again threatening to swallow her whole.
Every time she had this dream, she wondered how things would be different if Cartel lived. She wished they could have saved him. But she also knew they couldn’t change the past.
She couldn’t bring a friend back. The best she could do was remember him.
It was the only reason why she didn’t leave back then. Why she didn’t finish what she started so many years ago, centuries now.
After all, how would she remember him if she killed herself again?
She rolled back over. It was stressful each time, but it was worth it. She was proud that she could still remember, even if it was horrible.