What is happening? I blink slowly. The ground is coming up at me. No, that's not right. I'm falling. That's right. Flynn kicked me out of his shuttle. The river looks like a giant crystal snake, growing and growing. No...getting closer and closer. That’s right. What did Flynn do to my brain? I have to concentrate. I have to slow my momentum before I hit. I have to concentrate. What did Flynn do to my brain?
I close my eyes. Focus on one thing. One thing. My arm. Bring it to where I can see it. Just move my arm. I open my eyes. It's there. Why did I want my arm to move? I see the ground coming at me. I have to slow my momentum before I hit. My arm! My false arm. I need to charge a disruption wave. Charge. I don't feel it. Charge! This was so simple before. What did Flynn do to my brain? I close my eyes. Charge. My arm starts to vibrate. I open my eyes with a cry of joy. I orient my arm toward the ground and see with horror that I am about to hit. I let loose with the partially-charged wave. I'm slowing. Is it enough?
An indeterminate amount of time later, my eyes blink open. I see browns and greens. Dirt and grass. I take a deep breath and the dirt I inhale causes me to cough fitfully. Everything hurts and the coughing makes it hurt worse. On the other hand, my brain actually seems capable of complex thought again. I try to bring my arms up to push myself up off the ground. Only one responds. My flesh and blood hand. That's...odd. I push myself over with that hand, so that I am lying on my back. To my vast relief, I do not see Flynn's shuttle. Tentatively I try to see if I still have my connection with Psychopomp but nothing is there.
I sit up and all my muscles scream. They work, though, which is all I care about. I look down at my false arm. Nothing seems to be wrong with it. Yet no sensations are coming from it at all and I can't get so much as a finger to move. Strange that it worked before. But I don't know exactly what Flynn hit me with. Maybe it did something to the synthetic nerves in the arm. Or maybe I am drained of power. If that happened, though, other electronics, including my nanobots, would be in danger of shutting down. I don't think I would have woken up if that was the case.
I gather my feet underneath me and stumble to my feet. It takes a couple of tries before I am successfully up. Cradling my false arm in my other, I look around. I am where I thought. Flynn's Valley. I snarl. Flynn's Valley. I don't consider myself a particularly vindictive person but I think I'm going to set this valley aflame after I bury Flynn and his dogs here. Got to get to the Psychopomp first. Flynn might have thought that he could take my ship after killing me but the Pomp's security systems are too much for him. I just have to hope he doesn't get frustrated enough to slag it.
I take one step forward and my guts light on fire. With a supreme effort I remain on my feet. To try and calm things, I take a couple of deep breaths and swallow. It doesn't work. I bend over and vomit violently. Oh, that is unpleasant. I look down and notice a lot of bright red. That can't be good. Doesn't change anything though. Need to get to Psychopomp. I take a step.
I jog upstairs. The Doctor's meeting will be starting soon. He’ll want his Monster with him, to show off as he tries to force his vision down their throats. The amount of effort and time that the Doctor put into putting this little get together was staggering. The war raging across Earth has all but severed communications between most areas. So the Doctor, of course, had just decided to set up his own. He'd even deployed me to hand-deliver some of his little nodes.
Only a few of the invitees are there when I enter the room. Though, in actuality, I am the only person physically in the room. The rest were holograms and not even a true representation of the person. To hide their identities, just in case the Doctor's security precautions broke down, each hologram was a generic figure in black robes. It was impossible to tell if it was whether the figure was even male or female. To differentiate them, the Doctor had assigned each one a codename. The aliases were vague but suggestive. Only the Doctor knew the real person behind each avatar and codename, which would hamper any effort to unite against his vision.
The persons who had already patched in were the Rouser, the Conductor and Savior. Unsurprising. They were among the more desperate leaders. The war between the niao and Je'Techt was hottest in the Rocky Mountains, Mediterranean Sea and Indonesia. A few places the Je'Techt had already taken, such as Australia and southern Africa had gone completely black. The Doctor had even dropped me into Perth to see if I could find any organization left. I hadn't. The things I'd seen, if fact, made me wonder if the people calling for humanity to unite with the niao to fight the Je'Techt weren't right after all.
I drift into one dark corner of the room where I can keep an eye on everyone. The room itself was an irregular oblong shape. The Doctor had built his lab within a warren of caves. He had added his equipment to the natural flow of the caves, leaving the rough stone walls intact. This particular room had nothing other than black, conical nodes on either wall to broadcast the avatars and a large, highly-detailed hologram of Earth. The Earth glowed blue where the niao controlled territory, red for Je'Techt and green for the few places neither directly controlled.
More avatars start to appear as the meeting time grows close. Old Boy, X, Poison Seed, Nobunaga, Peach Blossom, Empress, Left Hand, Red Pope, Capo, Ibex and Gunslinger. They talk amongst each other and I do my best to listen in. Most of it is just pleasantries and few probing questions. That is revealing though. It won't be long before most of them know who the others are, generic avatars or no. They didn't become leaders of men because they were fools. The Doctor better start this thing quick, if he wants to hang onto his advantage.
As the appointed time comes and goes, it becomes clear that those who are going to show have already appeared. I'm not surprised a few of them turned down the Doctor's invitation. The most glaring omissions are from Japan, Korea and South America. Areas unaffected as yet by the war. If the niao caught wind of a worldwide human conspiracy, they wouldn't be nice about putting it down. Still, it was disappointing to see. Humans should stick together. Letting the niao or--despite my own misgivings--the Je'Techt divide us was the height of foolishness.
Just as I was seriously starting to wonder when he would show, the Doctor sweeps into the room. He is a wizened and slightly stooped Japanese man with shoulder-length white hair and a clean-shaven face. Despite his age, the Doctor radiates confidence and his eyes are clear and sharp. The Doctor wasn't one to show anyone else deference or even respect. He had gathered the most powerful leaders of humanity but hadn't bothered to dress up even half-decently for them. Instead he was wearing sandals, cargo shorts and a football jersey, the name 'Tittle' and the number '14' printed across the back of it.
I fall into step with the Doctor, shadowing him just to the right. I am in my black bodysuit with the hilt of my sword sticking up over one shoulder. Plenty of these people have seen me in action and the rest will have heard of the Doctor's Monster. The Doctor stops in the middle of the room and eyes the attendees. "I am glad most of you had the courage to attend," he says bluntly.
Old Boy steps forward. "And just what exactly are we attending? I am displeased that you have chosen to keep our identities from each other."
The Doctor shrugs. "Safety first. All you need to know is that I have brought together the most influential humans left on this planet. Humanity has never presented a united front to these invaders. This might be our last chance to do so." The Doctor pokes one of the red spots indicating Je'Techt. "You should all know where we stand now. The Je'Techt hit the niao hard and pushed them from several areas but bogged down. Now that the nephilim have come in on the niao side, they will most likely reverse the losses for the niao."
"How can you be so sure of that?" The Conductor asks. "I've seen the Je'Techt fight. They slaughtered the niao garrison at Silver Spring. The birds never stood a chance."
"Numbers, my dear," The Doctor states confidently. "The Je'Techt might have superior weaponry and tactics but the nephilim swing the numbers too decisively to overcome."
"Unless we humans side with them," Nobunaga puts in.
"Are you out of your mind?" Savior asks.
"Just pointing it out," Nobunaga says, seemingly unbothered.
"Nobunaga is correct," the Doctor says. "We have options here. We can side with the niao or Je'Techt, hoping that if we help them achieve victory, they will treat us gently. We could side with neither and either avoid getting into the conflict altogether or try to push both of them off Earth at the same time. This is what I brought you here to decide. If we stand together, maybe we can actually accomplish something for humanity."
Red Pope grunts. "Seems unlikely."
"What do you think we should do, Doctor?" Peach Blossom asks. "You are the one who brought us all here."
The Doctor narrows his eyes. "I think it is pretty clear. Supporting one side over the other gains us nothing. The niao consider us fighting for them to be our duty. Nothing will change. Considering the horrors visited upon Africa and Australia, siding with the Je'Techt is signing our own death warrant. Trying to push both sides of Earth is risky if even possible. And a temporary solution. Both sides will come back as soon as they can."
"So what do you want us to do?" Poison Seed asks angrily. "Bury our heads in the sand and wait until things return to the way they were?"
"Yes." This spurs the avatars into a fury. Many of them shout at the Doctor and the others shout at the ones shouting at the Doctor. The man who caused the commotion simply waits it out and then continues, "There is no good solution. This war does not benefit us the way some of you might think. Can a weasel kill a lion just because its been injured by another lion?"
"Weasels? Who are you calling a weasel?" Poison Seed asks angrily. "I've been fighting the niao for as long as I can remember. Are you trying to say that was pointless?"
"I am," The Doctor states without hesitation.
"Are you fucking kidding me right now?! You old bitch!" Poison Seed screams. "Did you actually call us here to tell us to give up? If the niao couldn't make me, what makes you think you could? You prick!" Poison Seed keeps ranting but the Doctor mutes her feed.
"Though I wish she stated it with more...class," Ibex says with a sideways glance at the raving avatar. "That is a valid point. For those of us who have been fighting the niao, why should we quit now that we have a little breathing room?"
The Doctor clasps his hands behind his back and gazes steadily around the room. "What have you gained?" he asks softly. "Some of you have been at war for decades. Striking out and poking the niao before running back to your mountains or your jungles. Guerilla warfare almost never works. It will not work here. And if you insist on attacking them when they are preoccupied with the Je'Techt, the reprisals humanity faces will be unthinkable."
"More than that," Savior speaks up. "We cannot cripple the niao if it means the Je'Techt win. Having lived under the rule of both, the niao are inestimably preferable."
"Does the hand that holds the whip really matter?" Gunslinger mutters.
"You have no idea," Left Hand snaps.
"I tend to agree," the Doctor says. "It's not particularly important right now, however. The niao will win this war and we need to think about what comes next."
"I'm not sure I understand what your meaning is, Doctor," the Rouser says. "I know you and I know you are no friend to the niao. I cannot believe you are preaching acceptance of niao domination."
The Doctor shakes his head firmly. "I am not. I never would. What I have realized though is that our preoccupation with Earth has been blind foolishness." The Doctor points up. "If we truly want to free humanity, to defeat the niao, we have to do it out there."
I step one foot into the river and the shock of cold slaps me. I jerk back so quickly that I end up sitting down hard. For a few moments, I just sit and breath and look around. I am on Flynn's World, in the gulch he pushed me into. Ten seconds ago I was on Earth, in the Doctor's lab, watching that disastrous meeting. It didn't feel like a memory. It felt like reality. I touch my head. Could Flynn's attack really messed up my circuitry that badly? Can my brain no longer tell the difference between a memory and reality? What triggered that specific memory anyway? I try and remember what I had been doing prior to the memory but nothing makes sense.
It is a good thing I already puked because I want to do so again right now. How can I function if one random synapse has me in a twenty-year old memory? I flop backwards and stare at the sky. What an error in judgment. I never thought that Flynn could possibly do anything to hurt me. I can't wait to kill him. Hopefully his flunkies are seriously injured. Breaker Von might even have died if he didn't get medical attention in time. I need to come up with some kind of plan to get off this planet. God, I'm tired though.
"I have something for you," the Doctor says with a wink.
I pause the war game I am playing and look at the Doctor warily. There is never any telling what the Doctor might 'have for me.' It could be a comic book, a new cybernetic surgery or some sort of test. Each was as likely as the other, wink or no. "What for?" I ask cautiously.
The Doctor, for the briefest instant, seems sad. Then he is smiling again. "It's your birthday, you silly kid! You're twelve now. Practically an adult."
"Is that so?" The Doctor's never made a fuss about my birthday before. My belly flutters nervously.
"It is so," the Doctor says with a spark in his eyes. "And I have a present for you." From behind his back, the Doctor reveals a sword. He extends it to me and I take it by the hilt and hold it aloft. I stop breathing. It is beautiful. The blade is a little wider than a katana's and it is more sharply curved. Also, the blade is completely black instead of grey. But it looks deadly. And it is mine. My own sword! Just like Kenshin and Yoshitsune! "Do you like it?" the Doctor asks, with a sly, knowing smile.
"I love it," I manage to gasp out. I take a few steps back and try out a few test swings. It is incredibly light and the balance is perfect.
"It is made of a plastic composite of my own design," the Doctor says smugly. "It is just this side of impossible to break and the edge will last forever. It will cut through something as soft as flesh without appreciable effort."
"It is wonderful," I say, shadow-fencing around my room.
"Well, then." The Doctor pulls a small cylinder from his pocket. With a twist, it extends out to a steel rod as tall as the Doctor. "Why don't we give it a real test?"
I look at him with dismay. "But this is a real sword," I say. I can see the edge on it.
"Yes, it is," the Doctor acknowledges. "So you can be sure that I won't be holding back."
"I could kill you."
The Doctor scoffs, whirling is staff lazily. "I very much doubt that. Come at me." I still hesitate, holding my sword loosely and pointed at the ground. "Now!" he commands with such forcefulness that I snap my sword up into guard position on reflex. "Attack me."
"You want to fight here?" I ask incredulously. We are in my bedroom. I can cross the room in five steps and with the desk, bed and wardrobe, there is almost no free space.
The Doctor's staff comes at me blindingly fast, rapping me on the side of the head. I can feel that he cut my ear. "Stop dithering," he growls.
I shift my feet and then attack him, starting with a wide double-handed sweep at his neck that I know he can parry easily. The Doctor doesn't disappoint, knocking my blade away and making me dance back to avoid his counter-thrust. I continue to attack this same way, putting as much speed and strength into my swings as I dare while making certain to only attack where he can defend. I truly do not understand what the Doctor is doing. We have sparred more times than I can remember and more often than not, now, it is me who emerges as the victor. Going all out would kill him, without a doubt. Was he really this overconfident or was I missing something?
The Doctor's face his hard and his eyes are cold. "What are you doing?" he asks.
"What do you mean?"
"This is not you. You are not taking this seriously." He abruptly pulls his staff away and I barely manage to stop my new blade from shearing off his leg at the knee. The Doctor takes advantage of the situation and smashes me full in the face before I can defend. I reel back, blood flying from my nose. Expecting the Doctor to continue his lecture, I don't reset my defense. And get hit in the face again. And again. The Doctor's staff comes at me so fast and so ferociously that I can't do anything to stop it. Soon I drop my sword and throw my arms up in front of my face. Shortly after that, I drop to the floor in a ball, curled up to protect myself as best I can. And still the blows don't stop.
Eventually I become aware of the Doctor ranting at me. "Are you trying to make a fool out of me!" he shouts. "I know you're stronger than that. I know you're faster than that. I built you myself. Did you think I wouldn't notice your stupid game? How many times have I told you that half-measures don't work? You should be so fast and so precise that that type of game should be beneath you. You should be stopping a hair's breadth from a killing stroke. Hell, you should be able to shave me with that blade!" He stops, both the beating and the lecture, breathing hard. "Why aren't you better?" he mutters. Then louder, "On your feet."
I slowly gather my arms under my chest and push myself up. Blood runs down my arms and face, spotting the ground below me. Once I manage to totter to my feet, I glance around for my sword and pick it up with one blood-slick hand. If the Doctor wants to keep going despite my injuries, I know better than to argue with him. I raise my sword into guard position. It wavers unsteadily. "Pathetic," the Doctor sneers. The word breaks the floodgates of my fury and my pain begins to recede. How can he call me pathetic when I got up after that beating? Which I only took trying to protect him. How dare he?
There is no holding back when I attack this time. My injuries hamper me but I am still moving faster and striking harder than I was. And the Doctor is being pressed. His staff is still there to ward off my blows but I can see his face is tight with concentration and beads of sweat are trickling down his brow. Then I break through, opening a shallow cut on this thigh. I expect him to call the fight at this point but he does not. This only stokes the flames of my anger.
The longer the fight continues, the better I feel. Blood is still coursing out of me but I'm not feeling anything. I am focused. A strike on the lower half of the staff knocks the Doctor off balance and I reverse the stoke. Some distant part of my mind screams but my arms never slow as I bring the blade up, shearing off the Doctor's hand at the wrist. The hand goes flying, tumbling through the air with a trail of red. The staff hits the ground with a clatter. The Doctor follows a moment later, dropping to his knees. Then he let's loose a shriek of pure terror and pain.
The screams paralyzes me and I simply stare at him dumbly while he tries to stem the blood flowing from his stump. "Help me!" he shouts. "Oh, god." I drop my sword but I'm not sure what to do. The Doctor must see this on my face. "God damn it! Rip a bandage from your sheets. You need to tie off my wrist to stop the blood. Now!" I rush to comply. "Hurry, you fucking Monster! I don't have much time. You have to help me. Where are you, Cato? Don't leave me. Cato!" I blink. Cato? Who is Cato? I don't have a name. I'm just the Doctor's Monster.
I look up and see a woman kneeling above me. There are tears on her face. "Nailah?" I manage through a parched tongue and throat.