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Chapter 13

May 17, 2012

Something was squeaking, over and over, a repetition that clawed its way into the blackness that surrounded me.  It gnawed at me, seeming to scrape at my ears and burrow into my brain.  My body rocked slightly from side to side, then jolted as it bumped into something.

“Careful you fool,” said Dante.

The surface under my shoulders was hard and cold.  I was flat on my back but moving.  With my eyes closed I could still make out the subtle changes in light level as I passed under lights set in the ceiling.  Suddenly the squeaking noise made sense.  I was flat on my back on a trolley.

“We need him in one piece.  Mostly at least.”

The trolley paused for a second, and I heard a series of electronic beeps followed by the release of an electromagnetic lock.  The trolley moved off again, the accompanying buzz of the door release getting quieter before it was cut off entirely.  The trolley stopped dead with a thud.

“Open your eyes Adrian.  No more games, it’s all over.”

Sitting up was painful, but I did my best not to show it.  I recognised where I was.  It was the lab, the lab they had said was mine, where Richter had brought me to show me the items he had hoped would jog my memory.  Or at least a memory in my head, not mine.  The whiteboard with the equation on was still against the wall, but the large metal work bench had been pushed to the side of the room, my pack resting on top.  In place of the metal bench in the centre of the room there stood large black chairs under a gantry.  I had seen it before, in Christa’s office.

“You recognise these of course?” asked Dante, walking across in front of the whiteboard and standing opposite me.  I noticed with satisfaction that the writing on the whiteboard was no different than when I had last seen it.  They had made no progress with the equation at all.

“Go fuck yourself.”  It seemed as good an answer as any.

Dante laughed.

“Ah, now you are sounding more and more like my old friend than ever before!  Not that prissy wanker Dr Collins, but brutal foul mouthed Adrian.  I have missed you, you must believe me.”

Flanking the whiteboard were two guards, each one had a gun pointed directly at my chest.  I tasted blood in my mouth.  Swilling my saliva I spat on the floor at Dante’s feet.

“I am not your friend.”

Dante laughed again, but he didn’t sound as satisfied this time.

“Ah, not now, but you were, you were.”

I glanced across at my pack, and then down at my watch.  I suppressed the grin that threatened to swarm onto my face.  In my pack were two blocks of C4.  I had intended to place them around the facility to create a distraction and cover my escape.  Each block had been timed to detonate at the 2am, which was in precisely fifteen seconds.  I wasn’t going to get out of here alive, but then neither was Dante.

The door to the room swung open and in walked Jack.  My head was fuzzy, and for a second I almost called out a warning to him.  Lookout Jack, the C4 is about to blow!  But the words didn’t make it to my lips.

“Do you have it?” said Dante.

Jack nodded and reached into his pocket.  He pulled out a folded envelope, the folded envelope containing the correct Adstringo, and handed it to Dante.  Immediately Dante tore into the envelope, his eyes devouring the contents.  He gave a low chuckle and then an appreciative whistle.

“Genius, the man was a genius,” he muttered, before folding the paper and placing it in his own pocket.

The second hand on my watch ticked past 2am.  Nothing happened.

“May I?” asked Jack.

Dante hesitated for a second and then nodded.

“Sure, just no permanent damage.”

Jack walked over to me, his eyes dead and expressionless.  He stopped opposite, his face rigid with repressed rage.

“God, I’ve waited a long time for this,” he growled, his voice thick with emotion.  The world exploded in a flash of multicoloured lights and my head crashed back on to the metal trolley.

“Easy!” cried Dante.  “That’s the most important bit.”

I struggled upright again to see Jack rubbing his fist, his face a study in vicious satisfaction.

“I only wish you could remember what that was for.  But still, felt good all the same.”  With that he turned and left the room.

My head swam, a tooth felt loose, the thick metallic tang of blood rolling across my tongue.

Dante moved over to the metal table.  My pack was resting on top.  Dante reached in and pulled out the Marshall file and the false passport.

“Listen, for the sake of our friendship, even if it is a friendship you cannot remember, I feel I owe you something of an explanation.”

With a flick of his wrist he flung the passport at me.

“It’s a good likeness of you, don’t you think?”  Of course it fucking was, it had been made only a few days before.

“And to think, you found this,” he held up the Marshall file, “and this,” he held up the picture of me, the one I had found under the laminate in my room, together with the note and the warning.

Dante laughed again and shook his head.

“Even after everything we’d done you still weren’t the brightest.”  He walked towards me and held the picture over the file.

“Do you think, Adrian, that if you had found them both together, the picture pinned to the file, that the penny would have dropped?  Mr A Marshall, Mr Adrian Marshall?”

My heart pounded in my ears, my entire body went numb.  I refused to believe what he was saying.  It couldn’t be true.  Dante was laughing again, almost doubling over now in his humour.

“And to think, you asked Jack, my Jack, for a false passport in the name of Adrian Marshall!”  He howled with laughter.

“He almost shit himself I can tell you, he thought you had rumbled it.  But no, not Blunt Instrument Marshall.  Stick a genius in his brain and he still struggles with his shoe laces.”  The laughter was verging on hysteria now, the two guards casting worried glances at each other.

How could it be true?  Suddenly things I could remember slid sideways, locking together in new ways that I hadn’t thought possible.

“That’s right Adrian.  The man you read about in here is you.”  He flung the file at the wall.  “And you used to work for me.  You still do, in fact.  You’re a special guy, one of the few people in the world that this shit works with.” He slapped the arm on one of the chairs in the middle of the room.

“A graft,” I muttered.

“That’s right,” said Dante, his tone patronising.  “Best one we’ve ever had.  God, we filled you to the brim, I can tell you.  Anyway, that also made you the perfect man to bring in Collins.  You could show him the true relevance of our research.  That, and the fact that just about nothing could stop you from completing your aim, back when your brain wasn’t like swiss cheese, that is.”

I felt like I was going to vomit.

“And you nearly managed it too.  Nearly.  The only problem was that Collins died on the way back here.  We’re not sure about the preservation process yet.  Sure, we’re selling it like hot cakes, but only as a stop gap measure until we can get the full product to market.  Anyway, we didn’t know if Collins would keep, so before either brain death or preservation we did the only thing we could, wedged him in your head.”

My skull felt like it was going to crack apart, busting open like an egg, Dr Collins hobbling from the gore into the centre of the room.

“How did he die?” I mumbled.  It didn’t seem important, but yet it was.  Something had to make sense.

“Helicopter crash.”

“I was the pilot, wasn’t I?”

Dante nodded.

“Yeah.  You were busted up to, but not as bad as Collins.  The problem is, without the Adstringo we can’t wipe before we transfer.  You were pretty full already, and with the mind of Collins on top it was always a risk, especially as we did a full transfer.  All we really needed was the Adstringo.  We hoped you’d wake up, I would ask for it and hey presto the job would be done.  But no, when you woke up you were shattered, your mind all over the place.  To start with you couldn’t remember anything, and your fits of clarity were no better as you would not cooperate.  We thought you would heal in time.  Most of us.  Some of us just wanted to torture the information out of you, felt that you were holding it back on purpose.  We were desperate, and then a new approach dropped in our laps.  You wanted to escape, embark on a voyage of discovery, and we felt it was worth the risk to support this, give you the freedom to remember in your own time.”

Dante took the paper from his pocket and studied it once again, the same appreciative whistle escaping his lips.

“And it worked.  A long shot, but it worked.”

“You bastard,” I snarled, pushing up from the metal trolley.  Dante danced back a few steps and the guards tensed, fingers over the trigger.

“We’ve had you on a leash the whole time, every step.  Who the fuck did you think you were, breaking out of here.  We let you go.  Your secret stash of weapons and explosives had us worried, but Cassandra was able to switch those out on the ferry.  You’re firing blanks Marshall, and if you were waiting for a big explosion you are going to be waiting a long time.”

Dante had picked one of the packs of C4 from my pack and was bouncing it on his hand.

“You know what all this means, don’t you?” Dante grinned.  “With this we can take healthy people, in their twenties, even children, and wipe them clean way, creating a perfectly blank host.  The wealthy will pay millions, billions, to be transferred to the new host.  This is immortality Marshall, pure and simple.  This is the crowning glory of the work of Dr Collins.”

My temples flashed with pain.  It was exactly as Richter had said, his words buried in a late summer’s day.  It didn’t really matter, not to me.  I could feel myself dying, I was sure of that now.  I couldn’t cope with this, not with the amount I had in my head.  I felt so full, so overstuffed, the pressure immense.  I knew now that the blackouts, the amnesia, were in part a defence mechanism.  No one could cope with this level of consciousness.  I could feel them, all of them, threatening to crash over me like a tidal wave of identity.  It was so bitterly ironic.  I had spent weeks with no identity, searching desperately for who I was.  The man with more identities than anyone, each life, each consciousness held in check by, what, force of will?  Fluke of brain morphology?  I knew now why I couldn’t remember.  To remember something was to risk remembering everything, and there was no way anyone alive could cope with that.  Even now with the pressure they leaked through.  A man in his late twenties, screaming in terror and agony, French curses and howls for mercy tripping from his lips.  An ancient looking Japanese man in a kimono, his face lined but his conscions clear.  He sat quietly on the mat and didn’t move as they surrounded him.  A great bear of a man, his face slashed with a purple scar that ran through an eye, the ball in the socket white and milky, laughed as he cut a man’s throat.  A young mother wept by her daughter’s bedside as the venthilator stopped, a high pitched whine shepherding her daughters spirit from the world.  I grabbed my temples and squeezed, trying to crush them all out.  Somewhere in there was Dr Collins.  Somewhere in there was Marshall.  Flawed and petty Marshall, huddled in the corner, his house full of uninvited guests.  Somewhere in there was me.

The door opened and closed.  There was a hushed exchange of words.  I wasn’t paying attention.

“Put him in the chair,” said Dante, raising his voice.  Hands caught me up but I didn’t resist.  They could do what they liked with me, I was done.  For all I knew the world would be better off without Marshall, without me.  It certainly seemed that way.

The man who had entered the room was Richter, his face as grey and ashen as before.  He stood over me, hooking up a series of leads to my temples.  With a twist he forced something up my nose, the cold penetrating to the very centre of my bulging head.  I cried out in pain but couldn’t move, the straps now firm around my wrists, ankles and head.

“You shouldn’t have come back, God dammit!”  Richter’s voice was hushed, less than a whisper, but his mouth was pressed so close to mine I could make out his desperation.

“Fight it Marshall, fight it for all its worth.  You can’t fight it and win, but you can fight it and die, with dignity.  With some at least.  You can’t let them bring back Dr Collins, that must not happen.  For the sake of the world, fight it!”

“What’s taking so long?” asked Dante, approaching the chair and holding a glass.

“Nothing, all done,” said Richter, straightening quickly and moving away.

“Is the Adstringo programmed in?”

“Yes Dante,” replied Richter.

“And we have the Dr ready?”

Richter didn’t reply, but he must have signalled something to Dante as the big Albino nodded in satisfaction.  He smiled a sickly smile and raised the glass.  It was half full with ice and a deep amber liquid.

“Your favourite old friend, Bourbon and rocks for the road, the long road?” He pushed the glass towards me.  How I wanted to smash it from his hands, to spit in his face, but I couldn’t move.

“I hate that shit,” I snarled.  It was true, it had tasted like poison when he had served me Bourbon in his office.  Dante looked disappointed.

“Yes, well, you can’t say I didn’t try and end this nicely.  Adrian Marshall passing up a free drink.  Do you know, I am not sure you are my friend still anyway.  Right, Richter, wipe this sorry asshole out won’t you.”

“It’ll take about an hour, maybe more,” said Richter.

“An hour!  That’s way outside the models Richter.”

For once I could hear anger in Richter’s voice, the simper slipping for a second.

“We’ll go as quickly as we can, but we are not dealing with a normal man here, you know as well as I do how much there is in there to wipe.”

Dante grunted, then knocked back the bourbon in a single swig.

“Keep me updated then.  So long Marshall.”  He turned and left the room.

“Initialising,” said a voice I didn’t recognise.

“Fight it,” I thought I heard someone whisper, then a flash and the world went black.

 

I was in a dessert, the endless grey of the desert just before dawn.  The ground washed up into the sky and it was unclear where one ended and the other begun.  Layers of clouds stacked up above me, the underside reflecting back the fuzzy light of the false dawn.  I reached down and scooped up a handful of sand, watching the grains run through my fingers onto the floor.  Smilling I scooped up another handful, holding my hand tightly and letting it sift out through the bottom of my hand, oh so slowly.

This was my own memory, no one else’s, that I could tell clearly.  I knew this place.  It was like me.  Barren, harsh and unforgiving.  This was the reason I was so suited for the Mnemosyne programme.  I was already empty, no need for the Adstringo, or whatever it was that Dante raved about when he had had one too many.  I carried this memory with me, deep down within.  At this time I had felt something good, something approaching contentment.  As I had stood here, looking out across the naked expanse, I had felt at peace.  It was an unusual feeling for me, and so one I treasured.  I knew that the sun would never rise, that this place would stay locked in the pregnant twilight.  I had no memory of the sun rise you see, nor what same next in the day.  Just a memory of this place at this time, this feeling.

“What’s happening to you?”  The voice made me jump, my hand clamping down on the sand and stopping its slow trickle as I straightened and turned.  It was Dr Collins, old and fragile, breathing heavily as he approached me across the sand.

“They are wiping me clean away Doc, scoured from this earth, for better or worse.”  Even as I said the words I heard and then felt the rumble.  Like a slow moving earthquake I felt it surging through the memory.  In the sky a spot of yellow appeared.  No, it was not the sun, there would never be any sun in this place.  It was the Adstringo, here to make me clean.  I would bathe in its glory and never know pain, never know anything, ever again.

“What, Dante has you?”  His voice thrummed with excitement and I nodded my sympathy.

“Yes, sorry Doc.  I never should have gone back.  I should have taken a gun and ended us both, taken the Adstringo to my grave.  Or I could have left Christa do it with her Friday night special.  At least I could have coped one proper last peak at her body.”  I smiled, but something about what I said wormed in my mind, unsettling my new found equanimity.  I shrugged it off.

“What is this place?”

I shrugged.  It was a memory, just one of many.  For some reason I had chosen this to be my last.  It felt poetic, but I knew that I had no time for poetry.  It was confusing.  The rumble grew, the yellow spot growing.  At least it would be over soon.

“It was you, wasn’t it, with the warning?  The one who left me the note, the one who tried to kill me, to kill us, rather than let the Adstringo fall into Dante’s hands.”

For a second Dr Collins looked confused, then he rubbed his temples and sighed.

“Yes, that was me.  I had to do what I could to stop him, but now it is too late.”  Unbidden a memory swarmed up.  Dr Collins and I were in the helicopter.  I was bringing him back to Mnemosyne.  He was an old man, no threat to me, but suddenly he surged forward, grabbing the gun from the dash.  I reacted quickly but he got off two shots before I could disarm him, the first crippling the controls, the second slicing up through the roof and severing a fuel line.  A warning alarm wailed and we pitched out of control.  We weren’t high, but high enough.  The bird dropped out of the sky like a stone, hitting the deck with a crunch.  With a flash.

This was the memory before, immediately before the flash.  I could remember the flash, and suddenly there was more.  Doorways sprung up across the desert, blooming out of the sand and standing there, free of any support.  More and more blossomed, like some strange flowering plant.  The rumble surged and I stumbled, one of the doorways crashing forward into the sand.  There were dozens of doors now, stretching away to the horizon.  Something reached out and took my hand.  It was Dr Collins, his skin thin and papery.

“I am sorry, I really am,” he said.  I nodded.  “These are your memories, everything that was given to you.”  His free hand described a circle into the desert and one of the doors quivered and opened.  Standing there was the old Japanese man in the Kimono.  His name was Makishi, and he had studied Karate since he was three.  Another door opened, showing a man in a wheelchair with a baseball cap on.  His name was Hugo Roberts, and he was a prolific bomb maker.  A third door opened, revealing the accomplished metallurgist Professor J Cummings.

As Dr Collins held my hand more doors opened, the consciousness from each one flowing out to me, bathing me in silver light.  Not a tidal wave, but a caressing benediction.  The silver light would strip me away, as easily as the yellow Adstringo now blazing above, but it would be better, someone.  The silver rather than the gold.

But I couldn’t entirely let go.  Fight it, whispered Richter’s words, blowing across the desert plain.  The rumble grew louder, more doors fell, both open and closed.  Cracks opened up in the ground, an endless darkness visible through the drifting sand.  I had to shade my eyes against the light from the yellow ball in the sky.  Something itched in my mind like a splinter.

I was back in the helicopter.  Dr Collins reached forward for the gun, grabbed it and opened fire.  The scene skipped, blurred and then settled.  Dr Collins fired again.  Skip.  I was back at the controls, Cody was in the back fighting with the informant.

“Knock him out already!” I called back.  There was a scuffle and the informant surged forward, grabbed my gun and had two shots off before Cody could reach forward and slam his head into the floor.  The informant went limp, the gun dropping from his hands.  Codey dropped into the seat next to me with a sigh.

“We hit?” he asked.

I checked the controls.  It looked like the shots had missed everything vital.

“Nah, we’re fine.”

Skip.  The gun spun away from Dr Collins hand and down we went.  Skip.  We were back in the air, Collins reaching for the gun, only he kept shifting, changing from himself to the informant, then shifting back.

This wasn’t right, it wasn’t the same memory.  It was two memories, fastened together, glued and stuck.  It was sophisticated, but it was beginning to peel apart, to fray at the edges.  I picked at it and it shifted, the two memories moving onto of each other.  I pulled the top one away, hurling Cody and the informant into the darkness.

Dr Collins surged forward, but it wasn’t for the gun, it was for the letter I held in my hand, the letter I had just taken from his grip.  He had been crying since shortly after take-off, the letter clasped in his hands.  It was the letter from Dante, and whatever it said had shaken the old guy up a great deal.  I knew Dante could be a sadistic bastard, but I had never seen a simple letter generate such a dejected reaction.  Finally my curiosity had got the better of my and I had snatched it from Collins’ hands.  He had shaken himself out of his miserable day dream and was trying to claw it back from me.

With a dismissive chuckle I pressed the old man back in the seat with one hand.  He was truly feeble, unable to even peel my hand from his chest.  He whimpered as I unfolded the paper.  There were relatively few lines of text, Dante’s unsettlingly elegant script curling its way across the page.

 

Dr Collin’s, I said this would be an offer you could not refuse.  I know you care nothing for wealth, but all the same know this: I will make you a very rich man.  But that is incidental.  I know what you want most: that fine young lady.  Sarah I believe her name is.  I must say I am impressed – she could be your granddaughter.  So I offer you this – the young man bearing this letter is our best Graft, and of an age with your young assistant.  Come to me, bring me the Adstringo of your own free will, and I will give you this man.  I will replace his consciousness with you, and you can woo your love as a young man.  Think of it Collins, to be young again and in love.  Not bound up in that corpse that she will never notice. 

See you soon,

Dante

 

My skin crawled.  How could Dante offer this?  I had worked for him for years, I thought we were friends.  I was the best Graft he had, and that had been rewarded with memories beyond belief.  Was this a trick for Collins?  It was not beyond Dante, but I knew in that instant it was not.  Who was more valuable to Dante?  Adrian Marshall, hired gun and killer, or Dr Collins, the key to Dante’s research.

“I am so sorry, so sorry,” said Dr Collins, his old cheeks still wet with tears.

I crumpled the paper into my fist.  This was all I had, my life was my work.  I knew too much, I knew that Dante always got what he wanted.  If this was his will there was no way I could escape it.  Not while alive.  The old anger boiled up inside of me.  They couldn’t put Collins in me if he was dead!  But then that would be my own death warrant.  Fuck Dante!  With a growl I rolled the helicopter, pitching it towards the ground.  Warning bells chimed and whirred.  We weren’t high and it didn’t take long, the helicopter smashing into the hillside with the scream of tortured metal.  But no flash.  That would come later.

My eyes snapped open.  Dr Collins hand was still in mine, I could feel his blood moving under his fragile skin.  The doors continue to open, continue to fall.  The air roared, the ground bucked and trembled all around me.  The yellow sun was enormous, rays lancing out from it and striking the ground, leaving nothing but darkness.  Howling silhouettes erupted from the chasms around me, shifting through animal shapes and charging at me.  The first one, a wolf, reached me and jumped at my face, its black fangs dripping darkess.  I delivered an uppercut to its chin and it burst into flaming fragments.

“I really am sorry, you must believe me,” said Dr Collins.  He looked healthier, younger already.  I released his hand and took a step back.

“But look around you Marshall, look at everything they gave you.  What did you do with this?  Kill people more effectively?  I am one of the greatest minds of our generation.  Think of what I could achieve with another life, with all this within me.”  He gestured around at the doors, the ones that remained open, wobbling on uncertain footing as the ground rolled.

I shook my head.  The old anger, my anger rose up, poured power into my veins.

“You will bring nothing but evil, on a scale I could never fathom, pathetic creature that I am.  And you do not do this for good.  You do it for love, for lust.  You forget Dr, I am you, as much as I am me, and I feel your love.  It was pure and good, but now it is twisted and diseased.  Such is the true gift of Dante.”

A shadow in the shape of a lion stalked nearer to us.  It was cautious, it had seen the end of the wolf, and it meant not to suffer the same fate.  I watched it from the corner of my eye.  When it leapt I knew I would not be able to stop it.  A bolt from the yellow ball hit the ground just metres to my right.

“You lie, you are a worm, not worthy of what was given to you!”  Dr Collins spat the words, his voice choked with venom, his face ugly.  Richter was right, it had been better if Collins had never found the Adstringo.

“It wasn’t you, was it, with the warning?  You have never tried to kill me, to kill us.  You needed me, this body.”  I knew the words were true, and suddenly I saw the truth.  It was me.  Pathetic lowly Marshall.  The same nobility, that shred of decency, that had me crash the helicopter.  Better death than this, than the horror that Dante and Collins would unleash.  Fight it whispered the sand, the wind, the blood in my veins.  Fight it.

The lion leapt.  I flung my hand up, my fingers opening as I did so.  The sand, cupped in my palm and forgotten, flew out.  Where it touched the lion it erupted in blue flame, slicing through the silhouette.  In tatters the shadow fell to the ground.

The ground heaved and I almost fell.  The shafts of light from the ball above now hit the ground in sheets, more doors on the ground that standing.  Great chasms criss crossed the desert and nightmare shadows stalked at all sides.  But I was still here, this was my memory.  I was here.  I was Adrian Marshall, and I had yet to discover who I really was.

“Let go Marshall, your time is over!”  Dr Collins had to shout above the howling gale.

“Never!” I screamed, striding forward and picking the man from the floor.  He felt heavy, far weightier than his old frame should be, but still I hauled him from his feet.

“I have killed you once already Dr Collin’s, let’s see how we go a second time!”

With a roar the night beasts leapt, but I was two quick.  With a heave I hurled Dr. Collins into a chasm, a silent scream escaping his lips as he hurtled into the void.  With a wave of my hand I slammed all the doors, cutting off the flowing silver light.  Finally I crouched, gathered two handfuls of sand and hurled them at the burning ball, ignoring the flashing pain as the creatures reached me and sunk their teeth and claws into my flesh.  The sand hit the ball with a deafening detonation, the blue fire exploding across the sky from horizon to horizon.  The blast hit me in the chest, punching me to the ground, the shadow beasts shivering into pockets of stars.

“Something is very wrong.”  The voice was far away, sliding up and down the octaves, quivering with worry.

“It’s being pushed back.  What the hell is this?  Richter, we should contact Dante.”

“Not yet, re-modulate the frequency.  There, it’s stabilising.”

A pause.  A rhythmic beeping penetrated the gloom, the sounds of fingers frantically tapping keys.

“No, it hasn’t, it’s still in decline.  It’s loosing cohesion altogether.”

The beeping increased in frequency, building up and up.

“Richter, this isn’t right, it’s hit something it can’t cope with.  It’s killing him Richter, we need to abort.”

“Not yet!”

My eyes felt like they were glued shut, pressed down by tonnes and tonnes of sand.  If I wrestled them open the sharp grains would flow in, blinding me, scouring away my sight, my mind.  But I wanted to see, one last time, no matter the consequences.  The old anger came to my rescue, there by my side, surging power into my eyelids.  With a roar I prised them open, light pouring in instead of sand.  I was blind, but only for a second.  My eyes flexed and focused, the white ceiling drifting into view, the lines between the tiles picked out in black, like the chasm where I had hurled Collins.  Something was wet and warm on my lips, my chin, and also down my neck.  But still I couldn’t move.  They couldn’t chain me!

The beeping was now an almost continuos high pitched whine.

“Shit, he’s conscious!”

I struggled.  The half healed wounds on my wrist must have broken open, either when they strapped me in or while I was unconscious.  The blood had leaked into the leather cuffs, my wrist and hands slippery with my own blood.  With an explosion of power I hauled my shoulder up, roaring with pain as the skin peeled back from the base of my hand.  Still I hauled, to angry to even feel the pain.  With a slippery pop my hand pulled free, spraying blood across the far wall.

Gun.

The thought was instant.  The two guards in the room had holstered their weapons, unconcerned with an unconscious man strapped into a chair.  They reached for them now though, but not before I had pulled Christa’s gun from my pocket.  Swapped all my ammo for blanks had they?  Two sharp bangs, the two guards slumped to the floor, telling me that Christa’s gun was loaded with live ammunition.

With my free hand I released the strap around my head and sat up.  The wet warmth on my mouth and chin was blood, oozing from my nose.  Still more flowed from my ears and down my neck.  I ripped out all the cords.

Richter and a woman I had never seen before were at the two consoles in the room.  Richter had a strange expression on his face, a mixture of horror and amazement that I couldn’t place.  The woman looked terrified, scrambling backwards to the wall and slamming a hand over a large red button.  A low pitched siren gave a short wail, a red light set in the ceiling above the door started to strobe.  A shot to the head and the woman slid down the wall.

Three more seconds and I was free of the straps and on my feet.  The door swung open revealing two guards, one low, one high.  Quicker that I could have imagined I dove left, rolled, shot the guard standing, rolled to the right and delivered a withering blow to the other guards neck.  With a wet gurgle he collapsed to the floor.

A crash behind me caused me to whirl around.  Richter had toppled one of the consoles onto the floor.  Picking up the keyboard from the other he smashed it through the screen, pushing that to one side and driving his fists into the metal box beneath.

“We have to destroy it,” he sobbed.

I gathered up one of the guards weapons and emptied it into the computer equipment.  Richter didn’t even flinch.

“The Adstringo?”

Richter nodded.

“Dante still has a copy,” I said.

“It’s worse than that.  By now it will be in the mainframe, potentially distributed to any computer anywhere in this entire facility.”

Richter paused, his brow furrowing, then he swept up the chunk of C4 that Dante had left on the metal table.

“Nowhere near enough, you’d need a lot more than that for a place this size.”

Richter nodded, his lips set in a determined grimace.

“What about two thousand litres of liquid hyrdrogen?”

 

Richter had refused the gun.  He claimed he wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway, and I believed him.  As we walked I shot out the cameras in the ceiling.  It wouldn’t slow them down for long, but every edge would help.  The chemical storage facility was near the centre of the facility, Richter leading the way, his head bowed and his shoulders slumped.

A guard leaned out of a room ahead and a shot rang out, clipping past my temple and causing my head to twist to the side.  I returned fire, tracing a line across the wall and around the doorway.  Silence, and then a body slumped forward from the door way.  I tapped Richter on the shoulder and we continued.

Heavy metal blast doors led to the chemical storage room.  Richter typed in a complicated code and the left hand door swung open.  We hurried inside.

The room inside was smaller than I expected.  I was anticipating something similar to the Mnemosyne sports hall, with towering metal cylinders holding all manner of dangerous chemicals.  The room did have two metal cylinders, on their side, much like a petrol tanker, but they were smaller than I had hoped.

“It’ll be enough, trust me,” said Richter, catching my expression.

There was bang and Richter staggered sideways.

“Hold your fire, you idiots, you’ll kill us all!” roared a voice.  Guards swarmed into the corridor, their weapons raised.  With a heave I slammed the door closed.

“Can you lock this?” I asked Richter, but he didn’t answer.  His hand was pressed low in his side, blood already leaking around his fingers.

I sent three shots through the door control panel, reducing it to a crackling mess, and crouched down next to the scientist.

“Move your hand.”  Trembling he did so.  The bullet had severed an artery, the blood told that much.

“OK, put it back and press hard.”  Richter groaned as he did so, but I could tell he was applying as much pressure as he could.

“Help me up.”

I pulled him to his feet and he limped over to one of the metal canisters.

“We need it in the gas form, we need it to boil off.  Turn that valve there, three turns”  I turned the valve he had indicated.

“And that one, loosen it all the way off.”  Again I did as instructed.  A hiss of escaping pressure told me something had changed, but I saw nothing.

“OK, finally hit that red button.  It will shut off the venthilation, we need the gas to collect.”  I hit the button and somewhere high above us a whirring stopped.

“What now Doc?”

Richter slid to the floor, his back to the canister, his face now white instead of grey.

“Now we wait, we need as much to collect as possible.  Too much and it will asphyxiate.  Too little and it might not be a big enough blast.  Of course, it might detonate itself, but if not, I’ll be needing one of your guns.”

He reached out a blood soaked hand and I placed the gun in his palm.  Trembling he placed it in his lap, both hands now over the wound in his side.

“There is something else.  Dante is a coward, he will know where we have gone.  Even now he will be planning to abandon the facility.  You’ve got to stop him Marshall, or all this will be nothing.  He will start up somewhere else, the evil will begin again.”

Ricther’s breathing was short and ragged.

“Where will be be?”

“The roof.  He keeps a helicopter, the fastest way away from this place.  Take the venthilation stack, it goes straight there.”  Richter swallowed.  “I will give you as much time as I can, but understand, before I die I will detonate this room.  Stop Dante, Marshall, and get away if you can.”

I nodded and placed my hand on his shoulder.  Some blood bubbled to his lips as he uttered his last words.

“Tell Richard… tell my son.  Tell him I’m sorry.”

 

The venthilation shaft was accessed from a gantry around the top of the room.  I smashed a section from the circular tubing, sending it crashing to the floor.  The reflective shiny surface inside showed me my reflection.  Blood cacked my mouth and chin, together with twin streams down my cheeks.  Loose skin hung from my right wrist and the hand was also covered in blood.  I looked like some kind of avenging spirit from a horror movie.  With that image in mind I climbed up the small metal ladder inside the shaft.

Two stories up and the ladder stopped, the shaft branching to the side and meeting a metal grate.  I kicked this out and squeezed through, flopping down onto the tar covered roof.

Twenty metres to my right stood a helicopter.  Dante was dragging someone towards it, two guards trailing behind him. I opened fire and the two guards tumbled.  I aimed at Dante and he pulled the struggling figure in front of him.  It was Sarah.

“Now now Marshall, you really are an annoying prick, you always were.”  Dante’s eyes glowed with rage and spittle hung from his lips.  He pressed a gun into Sarah’s neck and she stopped struggling.

“You know I can take this shot Dante.  This is me, Marshall.  I’ll shoot you and her if I have to.”

Dante laughed an insane laugh.

“Well, you’re not the Marshall I knew anyway.  How much has changed Adrian?  Enough I bet, that you don’t want to spill this pretty young things blood.  You know you can’t shoot me without me getting her first.  Put down your gun.”

I tensed my finger over the trigger.  He was right of course, but what did I care?  I had to stop him, that was all that mattered.  She meant nothing to me.  So why wasn’t I firing?

“Give it up Marshall and she lives.  Oh, I’ll shoot you like the dog you are, but she will live.”

My hand trembled a little, imperceptible at first and then stronger.  I couldn’t do it, damn it!  With a curse I through the gun to the floor.  Dante roared with laughter.

“Oh my god, I was right.  What a pathetic bastard you’ve become Marshall.  What a pathetic bastard you will die.  As he turned the gun towards me Sarah bucked in his grip, her foot smashing down onto his instep, her elbow driving into his ribs.  Desperately she clawed at his wrists, the gun spinning away out of his grip.  With a growl Dante threw her aside, her body flying through the air and sliding across the rooftop.

The gun was too far from me so I charged Dante, dropping my shoulder and hitting him in the midriff.  In a tangle we both slid across the roof.  I landed awkwardly, the breath being driven to my lungs.  Dante was on his feet first, still laughing his insane laugh.

“Oh Marshall, with all we gave you is that the best you can do, a shoulder tackle?”  As I struggled to my feet he aimed a kick at my head, and I swayed to one side to avoid it.

“Do you think you were the only Graft, the only one we used?”  He stepped forward, quick but unhurried, a flurry of punches and kicks flying at me.  On reflex I blocked and parried them, moving faster than I could have believed possible, my wrists, arms and legs deflecting his blows.  Twisting defence to attack I aimed a kick then a punch to his head, both of which he blocked.  We stepped apart.

“You see,” said Dante, not even slightly out of breath.  “I was the first, the original.  Sure, you were lauded as the best, but that’s subjective.  Besides, they never filled me with junk like they did you.  All skills, no useless memories, no creeping personalities to poison the well.”

Again Dante attacked, relentless and pressing.  We danced across the rooftop, a flowing mix of punches, kicks, grapples and throws.  Twice Dante landed punches and I reeled, the force of each blow was immense, and I only just evaded his follow up attack.

“Ah, just like old times Marshall.  You’ve never beaten me, but then I guess you can’t remember that, can you?”

Again he attacked, three more times I was hit.  I tasted blood in my mouth, the wound to my wrist now burning with fury.  I was slowing down, I could feel it.

“You always preferred the style of that old man, who was it, Makishi?  Too passive I thought.  When you had so much to choose from you still chose defence over attack.  Turn your opponent’s strength against him?  All well and good, but it leaves you will little option when attacking the weak!”

He charged again, intent on the kill this time.  I stepped things up in desperation, landing a punch and kick, before he caught my roundhouse and spun, hurling me across the roof.  This time I didn’t move quickly enough, and before I was on my feet his boot cannoned into my gut, then my head.

My vision was a read haze, my body in agony.  Dante stood over me his face glowing with pleasure, a smile on his lips.  He lifted his boot over my head.

“Goodbye Marshall.”

A single shot rang out and the boot fell, not crushing into my face but grazing my temple as Dante crashed to the roof.  I struggled up right.  There stood Sarah, her hair flying around her in the wind, the gun trembling in her fist, tears streaking down her face.  For a second she turned the gun towards me, then with a sob it fell from his hands.

I crawled along the roof to Dante.  With a wet whisper breath was escaping his mouth, bubbles of blood on his lips.  His eyes were large and bulbous, shining angry red at the starless sky.

I reached into his pocket and pulled out the paper.  It was the Adstringo.  Grunting with the pain I unbuttoned Dante’s top pocket, retrieving the gold lighter I knew would be there.  For DA, from AM, said the inscription.  Flipping open the lighter I set fire to the paper, letting it burn all the way to my fingers, ignoring the searching pain as every last fibre was incinerated.

Dante grunted and tried to move, but the action only brought more blood to his mouth.  I had nothing to say to him.  He was nothing.

I heaved myself up and limped over to Sarah.  She was huddled in a ball, rocking back and forth and sobbing.

“C’mon, we have to leave, our time must nearly be up.”  I held out my hand.  She looked at it like it was a snake, but finally she took it and I helped her to her feet.  Together we struggled to the helictopter.

“Can you fly this?” she asked.

I ignored the question.  I had to, there wasn’t time for anything else.  Sitting at the controls I starred at the dials and switches.  It might as well have been the Adstringo, so little it meant to me.  Panic bubbled up from my stomach, but I fought it down.  I had to clear my mind, let it flow, don’t force it.  I closed my eyes.  In my mind I pictured a door, with myself on the other side.  Reaching out I opened the door, pulling it towards me slowly, letting the silver light trickle through.

The blades above my head snapped into life, the engine noise building.  I opened my eyes to see my hands moving across the controls, sure in what they did.

“Buckle up, this could get rough.”

Opening the throttle all the way I pulled up on the stick, the helicopter ponderous at first and then clawing for the sky.  Somewhere beneath us came a hollow bang, followed by another, and then the centre of the building erupted in a fire ball, the flash tremendous, flames shooting into the sky.  The explosion rolled on as I climbed and banked right, the enourmous golden ball fanning out and engulfing the entire complex.  The blast buffeted the helicopter, alarms ringing.  A piece of debris clattered into the blades and the controls bucked in my grip.  Briefly out of control we slewed down and to the left, back towards the building.  I fought for control.

“Hold on, I’m gonna need to put her down.  Somewhere.”

The helicopter pitched and dove for the ground.

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