A few months ago…
As far as Solitas Aprils went, this had been a warm one so far. The light snowfalls that followed after the freezing winters felt more like rain for practical purposes, melting soon after they touched the ground.
It was a sorry comparison to the real snows. Those were nice.
Arthur had always liked the cold.
The heavy blizzards had also meant the roads had been impassable, hampering the law enforcement officers that were hunting him.
It was ironic, Arthur’s fondness of winter, the season, and absolute terror of Winter the person. Ironwood’s attack dog had been running him down for months now. She’d closed in on him a couple of weeks ago. He’d only managed to escape thanks to his semblance, an excessive amount of fire Dust to blow up his safe house, and the fact that the Schnee bitch had brought her cyber-children deathsquad-in-training, and she’d been more concerned for their welfare after the explosion than she’d been about pursuing Arthur.
She’d be on him again soon after this little heist he was about to pull off. He’d gotten into contact with a crimelord in Vale, some base idiot that had more money than a lesser mind deserved. Arthur had given him blueprints of some of the experimental weapon prototypes he’d designed for the Atlesian military in exchanged for a substantial amount of lien, and afterwards the man had offered him even more for the blueprints and training manuals of the new Atlesian Paladins.
Arthur didn’t need the money–he had more than enough to get passage off this continent–but it would be good to have. A good basis with which to start his new life elsewhere.
Not that he really had anything left to live for. His wife, dead. Daughter, brain-damaged and comatose, and the army Arthur had once been an integral component of was now preventing him from saving his child.
He’d realized long ago that he was only really running because he was supposed to. He was being chased, so naturally he ran in response. He knew it was weak. That he didn’t have anything left. At this point, he’d be happy to get out of this bullshit kingdom just because it would be a nice “fuck you” to Ironwood. And getting out of here rich? That would make it even better. Especially since the asshole had frozen Arthur’s accounts, the small fortune he’d accrued over his years of work. He deserved that money. He’d earned it. It was his reward for being a mind so superior to all others.
And now he was forced to live in squalor in the slums of Mantle, constantly ducking police patrols.
The facility he was preparing to break into now was one he’d worked in before. He’d helped the architects figure out the layout so many years ago. Not for security measures; he consulted more for the laboratories, what kind of facilities and Dust generators they would need and where. But he still picked up quite a bit on the security systems and protocols both from their conception and over the years of working here.
Which is why he knew this would not be easy.
There was a squad of mercenaries waiting for him nearby, hired with the initial payment from the upjumped Valish criminal. They’d be getting ready in a van painted to look like a Dustrician’s service vehicle, six armed career soldiers, all ex-Atlesian military with dishonorable discharge. Three had aura, but just enough to give them a little more durability than the average soldier. They weren’t huntsmen.
If she got here in time, Winter would cut through them like butter. Well, maybe like a soft cheese. They’d buy Arthur enough time to get out. And it would mean he wouldn’t need to give them the second half of their payment.
He still hoped Winter wasn’t nearby. The facility was on the floating island of Atlas, though several miles from Atlas Academy, and the Schnee’s ship was far enough away that it wasn’t visible anywhere in the sky–and it was a fairly large frigate. Drake Class, C-sized.
Arthur shook his head. He didn’t like this constant fear he was in. He hadn’t cared about the kill order on his head for a while until the bitch found him and… well, that had not been an even fight. There was a jagged scar running along Arthur’s stomach to attest to that.
He wasn’t sure how she’d been Dust casting at him–she hadn’t had any Dust visible on her person. And she’d been far too fast with her sword for him to keep up with. Luckily, he’d planned ahead then, with the Dust bombs and defence turrets. This time, he wouldn’t have those. He’d just need to be fast and get out.
The complex was large, taking up over half a block alone, and there was a good twenty feet and a barbed fenceline from it to the next buildings–private warehouses used for corporate storage, mostly. The complex itself had been a warehouse for Tillman & Graye Enterprises, but they’d been bought by the Schnee Dust Company, who gave it back to the government in one of their military contracts. It was secluded enough that Arthur wasn’t overly worried about meddlesome bystanders, but close enough to other people and streets that there would be someone to blend in with while escaping.
From around the corner of one of these neighboring buildings, Arthur gave himself a long moment to look at the facility. The place he was having to sneak into. With criminals motivated only by greed. That Ironwood had cut him off from.
His facility. It was his more than Ironwood’s, that was certain. He had an office here, once. He’d spent all nighters here away from his family to meet Ironwood’s fucking deadlines.
What right did Ironwood have to name him a criminal?
Arthur let his anger build. It helped him think. Or rather, it kept him from wallowing in sadness from all he lost, which most certainly did not help him think.
He closed his eyes, yet clear as day he could see Morgan’s young face, expressionless and rimmed in the white of hospital pillows, unresponsive after the car crash.
Arthur could save her. He just needed more time. More access. The human brain was just a series of electrical impulses. If they were mapped correctly, it was possible to make a digital copy. And that strange artifact that Ironwood guarded so closely, that he could use to create matter from nothing to be used for the military equipment… Arthur wasn’t sure how it worked, had only seen it being used by passing accident once, but if it was what it seemed to be, Arthur would have been able to make free, instant prototypes on a whim.
But no. Arthur had asked Ironwood to lend him the artifact and been refused and told to abandon his attempt to save his daughter.
So he’d tried to steal it. He’d gotten so close. To just outside the door. But that hadn’t worked, and the attempt had resulted in his current fugitive status.
And now he was left with nothing but his anger.
That was fine. He’d be happy to share it.
He got back in his car to drive to the meeting point. The roads here were pretty clear, as they always were. In about ten minutes the day shift at the labs would end, changing the place from a bustling research center to an empty series of hallways lit only by emergency lights for most of the facility. That’s when they’d try to get in, while security was dealing with everyone leaving. It was always an ordeal and a source of constant complaints from the engineers. It was a more popular subject at lunch than the weather or the game last weekend.
He spotted the van and the extra sedan, pulling over as much as he was able on the narrow two lane road. Getting out of his vehicle, he approached and knocked on the back door.
“Ready?” he asked before the door had even been pulled open.
The four men in the back were dressed, like Arthur, in standard uniform for undeployed Atlesian military, blue long-sleeved collared shirt and white pants. Everyone always complained about the white pants. They were apparently hard to keep clean because idiots haven’t considered not spilling food and drinks on their clothing.
These four would be smuggling Arthur into the facility in a separate car. The two up front were dressed as Dustricians and would be going for the camera feeds. Arthur had been using controlled EMP pulses to disrupt the input from the cameras where they fed into the on-site server, so the workers and guards in the compound wouldn’t be surprised to see a maintenance crew coming in to look at the building’s Dust wiring.
“Yep,” one of the men answered. The leader, as Arthur understood it. Salfeld? Salfelt? Something like them. Arthur didn’t care enough about these men to bother learning their names or group dynamic.
Arthur nodded, heading over to the extra car, the four men following. The Dustrician’s van pulled away, clearing through security to get in position early. And it would minimize suspicions of the two cars arriving together, but Arthur wasn’t overly worried about that. The security guards were bored and used to not dealing with enemies.
“We fixed up the upholstery,” Sal-whatever said. “It’ll probably be a bit of a tight fit, but you’ll be able to fit inside the back seat just fine.”
Arthur nodded. He had his satchel with his laptop, which was all he needed. Well, that and a connection to the facility’s mainframe, but that’s what this whole operation was for.
One of the men opened up the door, leaned in, and pulled on something. All three of the back seat cushions lifted up to reveal the thin compartment where Arthur would hide while they passed through the security gate.
This is what he’d been reduced to.
“Let’s get going,” he ordered simply.
He climbed into his spot. Uncomfortable was an understatement. It was all metal, for one. Arthur would have thought the thousands of lien he was giving these criminals would have warranted them at least springing for some cushion lining here.
Oh well. One more thing to fuel his anger.
He was also a bit taller than the compartment was long, so he had to bend his knees and neck to fit, which meant pressing them into the hard metal. Aura wouldn’t do anything to help that, unfortunately.
Wordlessly, the man lowered the seats.
Complete and utter darkness. Not even any lights dancing behind his eyelids.
He knew there were tiny holes drilled in the back that led to the trunk space, per his request, so there was no risk of running out of air any time soon.
Still, this was… unnerving.
Arthur dismissed the jitters. They were irrational. It would be a maximum of ten minutes in this compartment. Ten minutes of discomfort. Nothing to get stressed about.
A muffled voice came from above.
“Can you hear us okay?”
Arthur opened his mouth to shout an affirmative, then decided against it. He wasn’t one to raise his voice, and this small, cramped space redoubled that trait. It would likely echo deafeningly anyway.
He gave two knocks on the metal in front of him in response.
The car started up, the mild rumbling making the walls of this box rattle annoyingly because it meant Arthur’s head rattled too.
Movement. He could feel the car moving and stopping, pressing him into one wall or the other from the momentum. His chest was constricting in mild, irrational fear at the tight space. Shallow breathing to not use up as much oxygen, though that was a moronic instinct. More oxygen was used that way because his breathing was faster.
He closed his eyes–not that it made any visual difference–and slowed his breathing, calmed himself.
‘Just focus on the project in front of you.’
The car rolled to a slow stop, and Arthur could make out voices above him. They’d be at the security gate now. He couldn’t make out the voice of the security guard, but he could hear the mercenaries in the car.
“Hey! We’re here from Command again. General Ironwood said the guys that came to pick up that Doctor Watts guy’s stuff missed something.”
“Yeah, some data drive with secret shit above my paygrade. He said he wasn’t sure it was here, but he wanted us to come do another sweep to make sure.”
“No, he only sent me and Rys. Torel back there is being a lazy sack of crap and trying to get out of the office so our CO can’t give him something to do.”
“And I was told we were going for coffee,” the man sitting above Arthur’s head said.
The men all laughed, and Arthur was fairly certain the security guard did too.
“Visitor passes? Um. Up to you. These two chucklefucks can wait in the car if you want. I won’t leave the heat on for ‘em, though.”
“Awesome, thank you.”
More laughter, then a few moments later they were moving again.
Hm. Arthur had hired these men because they were fighters, but apparently they were very good liars too.
There was a couple more minutes of this cramped space as they headed down the long drive and turned into the parking garage.
They pulled to a stop and one of the men above him knocked on the seat to signal they were letting him out. As if he hadn’t already figured that out himself.
The seat pulled up and Arthur had to blink quickly as his eyes readjusted to the light. He pushed himself up and his locked up muscles protested the movement. This ache would last a while.
They were in the parking garage, on the first floor. Though a good deal empty now, there were still over a dozen staff members exiting the facility and walking to their cars. Arthur turned and faced the car, just in case any of them recognized him.
It wasn’t likely. Arthur looked as different as he felt from the man he was months ago. His hair was longer, to the point where the mild curls were visible, and he’d done his best to keep it pushed back and straight and presentable. He also had a beard now. Something Gwen had always nagged him about. She kept telling him he looked goofy with just the mustache, and that he should let his beard grow out. Arthur had refused, of course. Beards were barbaric and unprofessional. A well kept mustache was a masterpiece.
Not that his mustache was well kept now. It was hard to make trips to the barber for a cut and shave, or even just to the store to buy a razor, when you were being hunted by the military.
“Kuzen just messaged. They’re ready to cut the cameras on your say-so,” Sal-something told him.
“So. Plan.” Sal said to the group. “We wait a minute for it to finish clearing out, then go in and flash the visitor’s badges. Rinn, give your badge to the doctor. You’re on watch duty out here. If security gives us any trouble, we kill the cameras early and take out the guards.”
The other three men nodded, then Sal turned to Arthur as he clipped the offered visitor’s badge to his frocket.
“You said you need to get to one of the back labs, right? Which one?”
Arthur cleared his throat, jerking his head to the side a bit to pop his neck and get the crick out of his neck.
“Any of them. There are five separate labs that all have access to the mainframe. Any will do. We can go to the closest one. Maybe a minute of walking from the entrance.”
Sal nodded. “And you said you can get us in?”
“Still know the security codes or something? You sure they haven’t changed them?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. Of course they’d changed them. They changed the codes every three days, every day for the back lab where the cybernetics division worked and their implants were developed. But that wouldn’t matter.
“I can get us in,” he restated simply.
Sal raised his hands in surrender.
“Customer’s always right, Sally,” one of the men smirked to him.
“Hmph. Alright. Get ready. We’ll walk in in just a sec. Let those fools clear out.” Sal pointed at a couple of men still getting into their cars.
“I can’t believe these scientists actually wear white lab coats,” one of the men muttered.
Standard practice was to take them off and leave them in the labs, but a lot of people were lazy and many preferred to bring their coats home to wash instead of relying on the cleaning staff to do their jobs, which they often didn’t.
Arthur didn’t say any of that, though. That constituted small talk, and Arthur loathed small talk.
The men all checked the guns at their hips. Clearly visible, open carry pistols. They were military personnel, after all. ‘Sally’ reached into the front seat of the car and pulled out a hat, one of the standard issue white military caps that were technically part of the Atlesian military uniform but that nobody ever wore. He handed it to Arthur.
Though he hated the fact that it was necessary, Arthur put it on. It likely wouldn’t make a difference–there were several guards working here that knew his face and name. But it was only prudent.
Arthur suspected they’d be killing the cameras and taking out the guards early.
“Aight, let’s go,” Sally ordered. “Rinn, eyes open. Stay on comms. Keep the car running.”
Part of Arthur’s brain wondered why this man was calling the shots when Arthur was the one paying for and planning the operation, but he didn’t really mind not calling the shots. He’d never had any interest in being a leader of anything. He only ever cared about having the freedom to work on his projects.
He’d never cared for career advancement, either. That had happened naturally from his work and intelligence speaking for themselves, which was just the way he liked it.
The automatic doors hissed open for them, admitting them into the wide, white hallway that led to the security booth up ahead. Only one guard was present sitting in the middle of the two metal detectors, where there would be two stationed here in the morning. It was a guard Arthur recognized. He’d been manning this station once or twice a week when Arthur worked here.
He pulled the lip of the hat down a bit lower.
“Hoya!” Sally called out, revealing his northern Solitas heritage. “Did the front gate call yet? Here to scour the traitor doctor’s office for some missing data drive.”
Arthur’s mustache twitched at that description of him. Traitor? No. Ironwood was the traitor. Ironwood betrayed him.
But Ironwood was in power, so it was Arthur that was labelled and disgraced as a traitor.
“Yeh, I heard,” the guard answered. “Gonna take four of you to carry out a data drive?” he asked with a chuckle.
“Might take four of us to find it,” Sally answered.
“Pfft, I’m not helping you until I get the coffee I was promised,” one of the other men poked.
“You see what I have to deal with?” Sally said familiarly to the guard.
The guard laughed. “We have some here like that too, bud. Come on through. Leave your guns here–” he tapped a bin sitting on the counter in front of him “–and keep your badges on you.”
Sally glanced back at Arthur ever so quickly, and Arthur gave him a curt nod just as fast. “Sounds good.”
They all placed their guns in the bin.
“Cool. So the kook’s old office is down this hallway, second right, then it’s… second or third door on the left? Not sure. It’ll be the only one without a name next to the door though.”
It was the second door. The first office, really, because the first door on the left was a supply closet.
“Also, you guys shouldn’t end up close enough, but one of the labs does wonky shit with scrolls. We recommend turnin’ ‘em off while you’re here, not that anyone ever listens.”
“Those people end up regretting not listening?” the coffee man asked.
The guard snorted and nodded. “Yeah, couple of them left here with super fucked screens. I always turn mine off whenever I have to walk back near the labs now.”
“Thanks bunches, friend,” Sally responded as he took his belt off and placed it on the counter by the metal detector. He then followed that up with his scroll, then stepped through without a hitch.
The rest of them followed suit. When it was Arthur’s turn, he made sure to angle himself away from the guard.
It didn’t matter. The man was on his scroll now, thumbing through a social media page.
“Good luck searchin’, guys,” he called over his shoulder as they walked down the hall. “See ya soon.”
“Thanks, you too,” Sally called back, though his eyes were focused on scanning the hallway ahead of them.
Amazing. Arthur just walked in, the guard not even giving him a second glance. He had even been brought up in the conversation and the guard hadn’t made any connection between the name and Arthur’s face, though he knew both.
Human stupidity never ceases to amaze.
Arthur took the lead as the group walked, leading them to the hallway that led towards his office but then turning right down another hallway that led to the experimental weapons lab.
“We’re gonna miss those guns if shit hits the fan like you told us it likely will,” Sally muttered.
“The lab we’re heading to will have some toys for you to arm yourselves with,” Arthur replied coolly.
“Oooh,” one of the men breathed.
Sally nodded. “Good.” He put his hand to his ear. “Take out their eyes, boys.”
The act of disabling the security cameras of a medium security government facility felt like it should have more gravitas. Nothing happened. Nothing felt like it had changed. There was just an answering voice in the earpiece that said, “Done. Move fast.”
Other than that, silence.
“So glad we have a nerd on the team now,” Sally said into the comms with a grin.
“Keep talkin’ shit and you’ll see what this nerd can do to your bank accounts,” the voice in the earpiece answered, making the men laugh.
They were getting close to the lab doors. Arthur closed his eyes, directing his aura towards his head, activating his semblance. When he opened his eyes again, everything looked the same.
Then he focused on the space behind the wall they were walking by.
His senses extended to see through the wall, perfect clarity as though there were no wall separating him from the room at all.
People had referred to his semblance as x-ray vision, but that was disingenuous. That implied that he was looking through the wall, but he wasn’t. He was looking past it.
He knew from his research that semblances impacted an aura-ed individual’s personality, in both staggering and subtle ways. He liked to think that his semblance gave him a hunger and talent for seeing the truth, for looking past assumptions and misinformation and learning what truly was.
It was why he was an intellectual so far beyond all others.
He could see through anything and everything–except Dust, for some reason.
It also had a second part to it that was, admittedly, the flashier ability, and one that was going to be very useful here.
“Two in the back of the lab,” he announced. They’d be the interns, left to document changes in some of the long-term experiments during the evening and leave the reports on the head scientist’s desk, often with illegible handwriting that they’d get a lot of flak for the next day but never improve.
Kids, really. Arthur knew them, had worked with one of them. An undergrad at Atlas Science University. The one he knew was Jade… Something, a curious intellectual that reminded Arthur of a younger, female, distractible, hyper, dumber version of himself… Okay, maybe not much of a reminder, but she’d been friendly enough.
Arthur had hoped Morgan would be like her someday, if a bit quicker.
The other one had ear buds in and looked like he was concentrating more on his music than on the readings in front of him.
“I’d rather not kill them,” he added.
“You can… see through walls?” one of the men asked, slowly and stupidly.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “No, I’m just guessing and pulling information out of my ass.”
“Hey, man, I dunno you.”
They got to the doors, large, magnetically sealed monsters that would only slide open if the proper code was punched into the keypad on the side, along with a retinal scan to assure you were part of the appropriate project team.
Or if it was opened from the inside with a simple push of a button.
“One moment,” he said.
From his head, he pushed the effect of his semblance down to the rest of his body. The tingling sensation of disconnecting from the physical world ran up his spine, though he knew he looked no different from the outside.
With that feeling flowing through his body, he stepped forward, through the doors. Past the doors.
While his form was passing through the door, Arthur felt that familiar buzz that he could only describe as feeling like human static. Like his atoms were bouncing around trying to find a place to put themselves.
He had to make sure to focus on just moving through the door. When he was first discovering his semblance he’d simply made all of himself intangible and fallen through the floor, barely pushing himself back up before running out of aura. Arthur wasn’t sure what would happen if he cut off his semblance while inside an object–maybe he’d just get shunted out to the nearest empty space. But he also wasn’t eager to find out. The possibility of losing life and/or limb made it something not worth testing, though he very much wanted to.
Stepping through the door, Arthur didn’t even need to take a moment to orient himself once he was in the room, as he’d had it in clear view already.
There wasn’t any noise with his semblance, so the interns, both in the back jotting down notes on their clipboards as they stared sleepily at the Dust equipment in front of them, didn’t notice his entrance.
He turned and pressed the button by the door and it hissed open.
That got Jade’s attention, though the other intern kept dancing to himself and writing notes.
Jade’s eyes went wide as she saw Arthur and the men that were now walking in.
“D-Doctor Watts?” she stammered. “I… I don’t think you’re supposed to be here…”
The other intern turned to her as she spoke, pulling out an earbud.
“What?” He saw where she was looking and turned, then jumped and dropped his clipboard when he noticed the newcomers to the lab.
“W-what?” he repeated.
Arthur walked forward calmly as the men around all apparently decided they really wanted a weapon in their hands again. They dove for the firearms on the lab tables around them, prototype weaponry that used Dust as much or more than they used traditional gun mechanics.
“You’re right, Jade, I’m not. So I’d appreciate it if you could stay quiet and calm.”
Jade and the boy both backed into the counter behind them.
“Um… okay,” Jade said.
“Do you have your scrolls?”
“But they’re turned off!” the boy said. “‘Cause they’re doing an experiment with lightning Dust in Hall C, so… we don’t want our… like–”
Arthur waved dismissively at the boy to shut him up. “Please put them on the table behind you.”
Shaking, they both did so, and Arthur gestured for one of the men to go grab them.
It was Sally that moved forward, though he and the others had their attention mostly on the weapons in their hands.
“This is so fucking cool,” one of the men behind Arthur muttered.
“Please don’t fire that one!” Jade cried out, pointing to one. “It’s… we haven’t figured out how to calibrate it correctly. It–there’s still about a sixty percent chance it’ll backfire and fry you.”
The man holding it quickly set it back down on the stand it had come from.
Sally grabbed the scroll, the interns flinching away from him at his approach.
“Please don’t break it,” the boy pleaded. “I just got a new one.”
Arthur rolled his eyes again. Held hostage, the boy’s concern was still on his scroll. Kids these days.
“Are you going to kill us?” Jade asked fearfully.
A little on the nose, that question. Arthur felt context should have informed that answer just fine.
“If I wanted to kill you, it would have happened already,” he replied, moving towards the back of the room where office with the terminal he needed to plug into was. “I sincerely hope you don’t give me a reason to.”
He got to the office, shutting the door behind him, and went to the computer where all the other equipment plugged into, giant bindings of cables that were hidden under the floor. It had no monitor around it–it didn’t need one as it wasn’t meant to be used. It was there to provide operating systems and data feeds to all the other tech in the lab, and it was out in the open so they could easily plug in and make changes or updates should the need arise.
Which is what Arthur was doing now.
He pulled out his laptop and the cable to attach it to the terminal, plugging both ends in where they needed to go. He opened up his screen and started with the command prompter. He was a Dust engineer first and foremost, but he was smart enough that he’d gotten masters degrees in several other subjects after graduating, even while working. One of them was computer science, and he used the knowledge he’d gained from that to write a program that would dig into and decrypt the files he needed on the Paladins.
He took a moment to stare at his wallpaper, a picture of him, Gwen, and Morgan outside Morgan’s school on the day of her science fair, a blanket of snow over the building, the pavement, their hair and shoulders, and Morgan’s giant gold trophy.
She was smiling so brightly, as was Gwen. Arthur had never been much of a smiler, but he’d felt so proud that day.
Pixelated Arthur’s hands were resting on Pixelated Morgan’s shoulder, and around his waist was wrapped one of Pixelated Gwen’s slender arms. That was all he’d ever get again. Gwen was gone and Morgan might as well be; she was never waking up and Arthur was never getting back into that hospital room. How long before the hospital pulled the plug on his daughter?
He shook his head, banishing the thought, and typed in the script needed to run the program. The basic UI he’d set up for the software said it was loading, a little circle spinning in the grey box, the program’s name of ‘vengeance.exe’ in the top left corner.
Arthur had hoped that little bit of humor would make him feel good when the time came to use the program, but right now he just felt empty. Breaking into his old lab, threatening innocent interns, hacking into a mainframe he’d helped build…
None of this was hurting Ironwood. None of this was making Ironwood pay for taking Arthur’s child away from him.
Maybe there was something he could do here, now.
This might be a chance for answers.
He duplicated the software program he was using, then went into the base files to make edits to the search parameters the clone was using. Instead of looking for Paladins, manual, training, controls, and the other keywords he was using to find the files the Valish criminal wanted, he used others: artifact, matter, matter generation, creation, material, met–
“The term you’re looking for is Relic of Creation.”
Arthur jumped at the voice. It was female, ageless, and felt like it had come from inside his head. But… that didn’t make any sense.
The room was empty except for him.
Through the window on the door, he could see the mercenaries standing guard, and using his semblance to peek through the wall he had an angle to see the interns standing frightened in a corner.
There wasn’t anyone hiding in the walls…
Maybe he was going crazy. Ironwood had made the claim that Arthur had suffered a psychotic break after the accident to justify his traitorous turn. It had been a fabricated lie, completely and absolutely… but now Arthur was hearing voices in his head?
“You are quite sane, Doctor. I might be in your head, but I am very much real.”
Something pulled Arthur’s attention to his laptop. It didn’t make any sense–the voice was clearly in his head, not coming from the laptop speakers. But… some itch made him want to look at his wallpaper again.
He minimized the two windows and immediately jerked back.
Gwen was gone.
In her place, standing a bit off to the side from Arthur and Morgan’s still figures, was another woman. Tall, very tall, with white hair in a strange bun, pale skin, a black, sleeveless dress, and red veins scarring across her complexion, up her neck and cheeks and down her bare arms. The whites of her eyes were black, and the irises were a deep blood red.
And she moved. Her hair and dress swayed to some invisible wind, and her eyes followed Arthur as he stepped back up to the laptop.
“Doctor Watts,” she said in greeting. The thumbs of her clasped hands extended up in acknowledgement, then fell back down.
There were so many questions running through his head. The first wasn’t even ‘Who is this woman?’ It was ‘How did this woman change my wallpaper image and then superimpose herself as a video?’
Photo editing and a green screen, most likely. But how was she making her voice appear in his head? Some sort of sound projection system that… manipulated the sound waves to bounce around his auricle before entering the ear canal, so it sounded like the noise was coming from inside his ears?
That wasn’t even possible, was it?
Maybe some sort of semblance? That was usually the answer to the inexplicable.
The woman leveled an unnervingly knowing gaze at Arthur. “For ‘who’, my name is Salem. As for what… well, I know you’re familiar with semblances. Yours allows you to see into rooms. Mine allows me to see into hearts.”
Arthur filed that information away, though his pride reflexively bristled at the oversimplification of his semblance. “Mine is a fair bit more complicated than that,” he argued.
Gwen had always told him he liked arguing too much.
“As is mine,” the woman–Salem–replied graciously. “And just as yours also lets you ignore the boundaries and laws of the physical universe, mine also allows me the ability to appear to those whose hearts I perceive, though at… significant cost.”
Arthur was quite fond of that description of his semblance. It made him sound so… absolute.
“I see. And this…?” He waved at his screen to try to indicate her and the weirdness of the situation.
“I’ve found that everyone perceives me differently. It is a reflection of you, not a choice of mine.”
That idea sank in slowly, and Arthur nodded. What did that say about him, that this strange woman took the place of his wife on a computer screen?
Something to think on later. This woman said that this moment was costly, which likely meant it was limited too. And something about her felt… important. Her words carried a weight that told him he should listen.
“Where are you, then, that you can appear to me?” he asked. If he pushed his semblance to its outer limit, he could see out of the building, perhaps even into the first few walls of the neighboring buildings.
“Oh, very, very far away,” Salem answered with a small smile that suggested some bit of humor.
Okay… “So why have you appeared to me, Miss Salem?”
Now she chuckled aloud. “‘Miss Salem.’ Hmph. Well, because I noticed your potential, Doctor. You are intelligent, resourceful, powerful, and driven. And, like me, you have been betrayed.”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed. While he appreciated being recognized for his talents, they were talents he was already very aware of, and flattery did nothing. But that last part… “What do you know of me?”
Salem began walking back and forth and the screen, and incredibly the snow at her feet parted and crunched in her wake.
‘Not a greenscreen, then.’
“I know that your family suffered a terrible accident. I know you tried to save your child.” She turned and looked at the still form of Morgan a few feet away from her.
What did that look like to her? Was the world of the wallpaper tangible and three-dimensional from inside it? The parting of the snow seemed to indicate so.
“And I know that you were spurned and betrayed for your efforts. By a man you thought you could trust.”
Arthur could feel his anger rising at the reminder.
“I know that you believed you could save your dear Morgan if you had access to the Relic of Creation…” She walked over and placed her hand on top of Pixelated Arthur’s where it rested on Morgan’s shoulder, and Arthur could swear he felt the soft touch of skin on the back of his hand in the real world. “And I know… you were right.”
Those three words alone made Arthur’s constant, simmering anger at Ironwood and Atlas and the world simply erupt.
He knew it. He knew it. He could save Morgan. He could bring her back and have his daughter again… He could… he…
“How?” he asked, angry tears threatening to spill over his cheeks. “How do you know?”
Salem regarded him with sad eyes. “Let us just say… I am very old. I have seen and heard and done many things in my centuries. And I once held the Relic of Creation in the palm of my hands. I know you could succeed because I know what the Relic is capable of.”
Arthur’s fists balled up. “What is it?”
Salem looked at him for a long moment, measuring him, as if she was deciding what to say. “It is the heart of a dead god,” she finally answered.
God? Like the Lady of Light and Lord of Darkness? Or like the Elementals? If creation was supposed to be an element of Dust, but the elemental god of it died, maybe that might explain… well, no, the Dus–
“God is a loose term. There is nothing divine about them. They were simply created with capabilities far beyond our own. Compared to us, they are gods. Or rather… they were.” There was something smug in the way she said that last part.
“What… happened to them?”
“Oh, most were already dead when they came to this world to escape their own. Only two came here alive. I believe you and the rest of Remnant now know them as the Lady of Light and the Lord of Darkness?”
Arthur swallowed. So all those religious idiots were right? Arthur had never believed in those deities, never even thought the idea was worth entertaining. There was far more evidence and structural support in reality for the Elementals. But apparently that was wrong…
Arthur hated being wrong.
“Oh, rest assured, they are not worth your worship. Their names were Aurora and Grimm, and they were not Light and Dark, they were Order and Chaos. They came to Remnant, bringing their dead brethren, the Relics, as we called them.”
“And… what did they do? What happened to them?” If there really were gods on Remnant once–or rather, these higher beings, as Salem described them–then perhaps that might explain the origins of Dust, of aura, of semblances, of Grimm?
The one god’s name was Grimm, apparently, so that might explain that.
“They landed here, crashing through the moon as they did so, fleeing a threat on their home world. Aurora, as was her way, ingrained herself in the lives of the indigenous people she landed among, instilling order and eventually founding the kingdom of Vale. Grimm wandered the wilds and did whatever he wanted, as was his way. The rest is a long story that I would be happy to share with you, but our time is nearing its end.”
“Did they make the Grimm? And semblances? And Dust?” Arthur blurted the questions one after another, desperate to get as many answers, as many truths as he could right now. He wasn’t sure what made him feel so confident that this woman’s answers were true, but that certainty was there nonetheless.
Salem raised a hand in a gesture of patience. “No. The Grimm are part of the threat they fled. But Aurora named these perversions of creatures Grimm to turn humanity against her brother and the inherent Chaos he wrought. As for semblances and auras, Aurora told the world they were gifts from her. Auras were once called auroras, though the name shortened over the years.”
She left it at that, a long pause following in which Arthur expected her to keep speaking. The way she’d phrased it, “Aurora told the world”, suggested that there was more to the story.
“But they weren’t?” he prompted.
“No,” Salem replied.
“… Well, what are they, then?” Arthur asked, a bit of impatience creeping into his voice. If this woman knew the answers, why wouldn’t she give them to Arthur? And why would she stop there of all places?
“Patience, Doctor Watts. You want answers. I understand that. But now is not the time. You have more pressing concerns. The Maiden knows where you are. She is coming for you.”
Salem cocked her head to the side and squinted off into the distance for a moment, then turned back to him.
How did Winter know where he was that quickly? How far was she?
He turned to do a scan of the surroundings through his semblance and his heart skipped a beat when he saw the Songbird, Winter’s command vessel, with its long trailing ribbons and narrow frame coming in to stop at a low hover above the roof.
“Guys, we got a problem,” the voice of the man in charge of disabling the cameras announced at the same moment.
“Shit,” Arthur repeated.
Abandoning his conversation with Salem for the moment, he reopened the window of the datamining program, the one that was actually running, looking for the information on the Paladins.
He glanced up and saw the thin, white-and-blue clad Winter jump down from her ship and land gracefully on the roof, a thirty foot drop that she made without any rappel line.
“Calm yourself,” Salem said, prompting Arthur to minimize the window again. “You can get away. Now listen closely. You want answers. And I need help. As I said at the beginning, I was also betrayed. I was trapped by someone I trusted, someone I loved, and left broken. I have only recently been able to piece my consciousness back together. I need help breaking free of the chains that bind me. If I can promise you the answers you seek, revenge against the general, and a chance to save your daughter, will you help me?”
There was a pleading look in her eyes that made Arthur swallow. Or maybe that was his nerves with the Schnee bitch so close.
The men were shouting into their earpieces, breaking from the positions they were holding to get ready for engagement. Sally ran up and knocked fervently on the door of the office to get Arthur’s attention, but Arthur held up a finger and pulled out his earpiece.
There could be no distractions right now.
This woman said she was centuries old. That she was around and walked among gods. Her semblance was clearly powerful, and if her words were true…
If her words were true, then maybe there was a real chance that Arthur could get his daughter back.
“Yes,” he decided. He would help this woman, this kindred spirit that understood him, if it meant getting to speak to Morgan again. “Where are you?”
“What?!” Arthur blurted.
The Crucible? She was trapped in a living hell of nightmare creatures? How was Arthur supposed to get to her.
And how the fuck was she using her semblance across literal thousands of miles?
“Listen! There is a man near you that can get you to the Crucible. Once you’re there, I should be able to guide you the rest of the way to me.”
Fuck… Going to the Crucible wasn’t exactly the vengeful, spiteful escape from Ironwood he’d been planning. But…
“Who is it?”
“A man named Jacques Schnee.”
Arthur snorted, unable to stop himself from reacting to the irony.
Salem raised an eyebrow.
“You realize Jacques is Winter’s father, right?” he asked. She seemed to know everything.
“I do. Which is a large part of why he’ll be willing to help you.”
This was risky. Running from Winter and heading straight to her childhood home?
… Admittedly, she’d probably never think to look for him there…
“Go,” Salem urged. “Your time has run out. Come find me and I shall give you the answers and the vengeance and the chance you so dearly seek.”
When Arthur next blinked, Salem was gone, his wallpaper the same beautiful picture as before. It almost felt disconcerting to see Gwen there, though, as if her olive skin and red hair were supposed to be pale and white.
There was a beep, and this time it did come from his laptop.
Time to go.
Arthur hurried to unplug his laptop, place it in his bag, then turned to survey the state of things.
Winter was one hallway away. The security guard they’d simply lied their way past was helping her fight three men in the hall–the man that had been left with the car and the two posing as Dustricians–though she clearly didn’t need assistance.
She closed her fist and the gun of the man she was facing splintered into pieces, then she darted forward and skewered his upper thigh with her rapier. The man screamed in pain. The other man fired at her point blank three, four, five times, each bullet bouncing off her aura to no effect. He backed away and she slashed out, a wave of blue light extending from her rapier, effectively lengthening it, and she took off the man’s hand. A spray of blood and another scream followed.
Behind her, the man coming from the getaway car shot once, twice–but not at her. At the back of the security guard.
Winter turned, took in what happened, and a cold fury crossed her face. She extended her free hand out, fingers splayed, and there was a sound like cracking glass. A thin shard of rippling, translucent, nearly invisible force shot out from her palm, expanding as it traveled in a blink. When it reached the getaway driver, it was wide enough that it bit into both sides of the walls of the hall, and yet still thin enough that the driver’s legs were cut cleanly out from under him just above the knee, another two spurts of blood another ragged scream resulting.
“DOCTOR!” Sally screamed, throwing open the office door. “We need to get out of here, now!”
Arthur looked at the terrified ex-soldier, then back to the outer hall.
Winter was racing up to the lab.
“No time. She’s outside.”
Sally turned and waved wildly at the other men to get in position. They each held a prototype weapon that would likely do more damage to them than it ever would to Winter. Sally ran for the interns and grabbed Jade, who screamed as he dragged her in front of him and held his gun to her head.
Winter got to the sealed door, looked at the keypad, then at the magnetically sealed door, and shook her head. She placed an open palm on the metal of the door, then twitched them ever so slightly like a claw.
The door creaked, groaned, and cracked along the edges.
She did it again, and the door responded again, crumpling inwards.
Arthur knew where this was going. There was no point in staying.
He turned and ran through the back wall of the office.
A few moments of intangible discomfort, then he was back in another wide hallway, a different laboratory in front of him. He ran through that door too, startling a lonely intern working within. He sprinted across the room and through the back wall again.
He kept running and running until he phased through a wall that brought him outside. He paused to take a breath, panting from the exertion. He wasn’t in the best physical shape, but he was an intellectual, not an athlete.
He looked around.
Above him, Winter’s ship hovered, threatening any escape attempt in view. Even now he could see the bottom of the hull open up to lower a massive machine gun that turned and pointed at him.
He jumped back inside just as a spray of bullets obliterated the concrete where he’d been standing.
He needed a way out.
Back in the weapons lab, shit was exploding and Winter was slicing through the mercenaries. Sally was disarmed–both without a weapon and without an arm–and Jade was cowering behind a table with the other boy, so apparently the hostage situation hadn’t gone as Sally planned.
Winter would be finished there soon.
Arthur looked around, then noticed something that filled him with both relief and dread.
Had it really come down to this? Was this the level that Arthur would have to stoop to to get away?
Was he willing to?
Salem’s words flashed through his head, her promise of answers and vengeance and a chance to save Morgan.
Yes. Yes, he was willing to. He had too much to live for.
Arthur dashed over, then chose to purposefully fall through the floor.
He landed on the walkway running along the facility’s sewer line and the smell immediately made him vomit.
His hands on his knees, he finally picked himself up, only to vomit again.
The smell was truly, truly disgusting.
Arthur didn’t belong here. He was the Arthur Watts. He was the greatest mind in Atlas, probably in all of Remnant. He had seven master’s degrees, twelve published and acclaimed research papers, three awards for scientific discoveries, six patents, four of which were technologies currently employed by both military and civilians, and he fucking built this lab. He didn’t fucking belong down here, crawling amongst the rats and the shit.
Another thing to exact justice on Ironwood when the time came.
But first, answers. Then, Morgan. And the next step in that path was the Schnee Manor.