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I am become Death


Mara Lithaen
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On a normally quiet, un-disturbed mountainside in Colorado, one could glory in the beauty of nature, meditate and center oneself, camp, hike, ski…  or you could also be among the hundred-odd brightly dressed personnel charged with securing and investigating a crash site  whose burning wreckage still marked the spot where something had died.

 

Marshal James Benson of the Federal Marshals puffed his way up the mountain towards the wreck in the bright, clear dawn of a late-autumn day, leaving the warm confines of his Ford all-wheel-drive to pass through the hastily erected barrier between the crash site and the outside world. The weather up on the mountainside was cold, bone-chillingly cold, and he looked – and felt – more along the lines of an arctic explorer than the big-city detective he was, lost in his bright-yellow subzero gear. Exacerbating that fact was the snowfall that had occurred just before the incident on the mountain had occurred and had had the good graces to end before it got too deep to pass  wheeled vehicles through, though it still left drifts of loose snow up to his knees.

 

As he drew near, an equally bright-colored and Eskimo-like figure standing next to what looked for all the world like an oversized Radio Flyer waved him over. Taking that as the sign it was, he trudged up the slope to meet whoever it was that lay under that coat. “Marshal Benson?” the figure asked, a woman’s muffled voice issuing from somewhere within the gear she was lost in.

 

“That’s me.” He replied, voice equally muffled by many layers. “And you?”

 

“Sheriff Santos. Pleased to meet you. I’d shake your hand but that’s contra-indicated at this point. I don’t think I’ve got the articulation in this thing to do it.” She replied, a wry note in her voice that was almost lost in the wind and layers of clothing. Benson caught it nonetheless, and smiled, despite knowing she couldn’t see it.

 

“Likewise, Sheriff. What have we got here?” Benson asked of the good Sheriff.

 

“Marshal, I’ll be damned if I know. “ Sheriff Santos said, bluntly, and turned to gesture at the still-burning wreckage up ahead. “Whatever that thing is, it’s burning so hot we can’t get close enough to ID it, and our firefighting gear freezes up before we can use it. Regardless of what it is, though,  we’re getting a fairly good idea of what it was doing.” She said, and reached down into the wagon, pulling free a cylinder of polished metal almost as long as her forearm and bigger around. She handed it to him, and Benson inspected it carefully, turning it end over end. On the closed end of the cylinder, it read “30mm x 113mm APFSDS”. While that random string of numbers and letters might not mean something to most people, it did mean something to the ballistic forensics expert Benson had been and the veteran he was.

 

“My God, whatever that is –“ he said, gesturing at the wreck himself, “ I’d bet my next paycheck it was firing this at whatever it was shooting at. Sheriff, this is an anti-tank round – the Army uses them on their Apache attack choppers.”

 

The eyes behind Santos’ goggles grew wide. “Jesucristo.” She muttered to herself, barely audible in the wind. Just then, an investigator came – well, not quite running, but the closest one could come dressed as they were – up to Santos and Benson.  “Sheriff! I found something you’re going to want to look at.”

 

Santos nodded. “Take us there, McCoy.” She said, starting after the investigator, Benson hot on her heels. Around a hundred yards away from where the wreckage lay, the investigator stood and beckoned Benson and Santos over.

 

When they caught up, Benson immediately saw what had caused McCoy to alert them. A swath of snow was misted red, making a rough cone up to where an indentation in the snow showed where something – or someone – had hit the ground, hard. A pool of blood rested in the middle of the indentation, roughly where a person’s abdomen would be. Something looked wrong, however. Benson kneeled down, as the investigator resumed his documentation of the area with his camera, and paid close attention to what he was looking at. The indentation in the snow resembled a human, but only in a general sense. As he looked closer at it, he saw that all the limbs were angular, the edges of the indentation too even and sharp to be natural. Then he started to notice patterns in the packed snow – grooves and sharp edges and other things besides. He wished he could scratch his head.

 

“This doesn’t make sense,” he said aloud to the Sheriff, who was making her own inspection on the other side. “The proportions are right to be a person, but the shape is just… wrong.” He said, and looked around. “And see here,” he said, pointing over to a very widely spaced set of tracks that also led to the indent. “These strides are damn near forty feet long, too. Or at least before the aircraft over there hit whatever – whoever this was.”

 

“And there’s more than one set of tracks, at that.” Santos said, pointing out additional footprints in the snow.  “This looks like there were two or three others besides this one. These look like some kind of boot,  and every other groove has a deep cleat on it – perfect for snow work, but not if you’re moving as fast as this one was, unless you’ve got a lot of muscle behind it.” She said, and went over to look at the longer strides. After a moment, she exclaimed – “And that one’s prints have the same indentations as the rest!”

 

Looking around, between the tracks, at the place where something had rested not long ago, bleeding massively, at the wreckage, and at the indents the other mystery aircraft had left when it landed, led to far more questions than answers for one Marshal James Benson. What the hell happened here?

Edited by Mara Lithaen
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Far away, in a darkened room, two figures kneeled in front of a shadow-shrouded figure, themselves bathed in light.

 

“Well?” asked the figure, in a guttural accent far removed from the American continent.

 

“Sir, the target escaped, and it seems they also took one of the subjects with them –“ said one of the kneeling figures. The shadowed figure grunted, moving a bit.

 

“And just how did you let that happen?” it asked, voice silky with hidden danger.

 

The kneeling figure didn’t catch the tone. “We didn’t, sir, it was –“ That one never finished speaking. With a movement that was sensed than seen, the shadowed figure drew a revolver, the barrel coming to a rest level with the speaker’s head, and the room lit up slightly with the flash and rang with the report of the weapon. The speaker toppled forwards, grey matter and red mist coating the floor behind him. The shadow figure moved the weapon’s business end to point at the other figure, the one who hadn’t spoken.

 

“Now, suppose you tell me how our enemies managed to abscond with our test subject under your supervision?” the figure asked again, in the same silky tone.

 

The woman swallowed, eyes fixed on the barrel of the gun centered between them. “Sir, one of the guards fell asleep at his post in the sensor room. I… I didn’t realize that he was sleeping when I made my rounds. He was sitting straight upright, and appeared to be looking down at his console. Nothing seemed to be out of order, so I continued on without making a further check.”

 

For a moment, she prepared herself to die as the gun didn’t move, sending a half-remembered prayer winging off as she did so. Then the shadow made up its mind, and the gun disappeared. “Honesty.” It said, the silken menace gone from its voice. “I do value it. It is rare enough I find it.” The woman released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, as silently as she could. Then her breath caught again as the shadow continued. “You will bring me this sentry and I will deal with him. Is this understood?”

 

She swallowed. The young man was about to receive a death sentence, and it would be her doing, as surely as if she’d pulled the trigger herself. But it was him or her, and in the end, self-preservation won out. “Yes, sir.”

“You are dismissed.” The shadow said. The woman had to remind herself to walk normally as she rose and left the audience chamber, without a backward glance toward her dead companion. When the door closed, the shadow turned its head, and spoke to no one that could be seen. “Lights.”

 

And then there was bright, white light in the chamber. The figure revealed himself to be a brown-haired, brown eyed man of middling height and nondescript features, a pair of glasses perched on his nose, giving off less the air of a killer and more that of a schoolmaster.

 

The only thing that detracted from that image was the perfectly pressed, well-kempt field-gray uniform he wore, bare of further decoration save for twin lightning bolts on both sides of his collar.

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  • 5 weeks later...

Somewhere, flying low and fast over the Colorado countryside, a doctor, a medic and a pilot ferry a wounded trainee back home...

 

“I need suction, here! Come on!” The sound of a small, surgically clean vacuum coming to life in the transport's medical bay breaks the monotonous drone of the transport's massive engines.

 

“On it, on it!”

 

“Quick, sutures! I need the replacements, and I need sutures.”

 

“Here!” A clatter of tools, and a faint, wet, squelching sound as something is removed, followed by a similar sound as something else is put in in its place.

 

“She’s fading…”

 

“Start a new infusion. Use your own blood if you have to. I showed you how to do that already.” More rustling of tools and implements greet the command.

 

“Already halfway there, Doc. I hope the stupid kid’s worth it.”

 

“You try telling Nike about how you let her daughter die. Just let me know ahead of time so I can be outside of the blast radius.”

 

“I might take you up on it if I didn’t think you were being absolutely literal... aaaand the IV’s hooked in. She’s stabilizing.”

 

“The replacements are snipped in and the nanites are taking hold. I’ll start closing her up once the bleeding stops.”

 

“On a scale of one to ten, how pissed do you think Nike will actually be, Doc?”

 

“I’m not sure, Ivan. On the one hand, nobody messes with Mama’s babies. On the other hand, we already killed most of the motherfuckers responsible. On the other other hand, Nyx here did exactly what Nike told her not to do – go hunting after the Project people without backup. So on a scale of one to ten, I think somewhere around nine-point-five – I’m just not sure who she’ll be pissed off at.”

 

“Shiiiit.”

 

“I’d say that’s about the size of it, yeah. Bleeding’s stopped, closing her up. She’s gonna have a nasty scar there, same as Mom.”

 

“That family has a thing about running afoul of attack choppers, dunnit?”

 

“Nah, they have a thing about coming up short of cover to hide in at the wrong moment. The proverbial lightning’s struck twice now. Last stitch in. I’m upping her dosage to keep her out for a few days. She’s going to be in a world of hurt when she wakes up.”

 

“And if that’s not the greatest understatement in the last half-century, I’m not sure what is.”

 

The pilot breaks in.

 

“Thirty minutes til we touch down at the Homestead, gentlemen. How’s our special guest?”

 

“Nyx’s trending stable, Two-Twelve.  We just finished closing her up; she’s on enough valium to kill a horse at this point.”

 

“Good to hear, Miguel. That’s nano-controlled slow release, right? Not old-fashioned.”

 

“Right in one. I do actually know what I’m doing, occasionally, Two-Twelve.”

 

“That ain’t what your wife said to me the other night, Miguel.”

 

“Ha-ha. Very funny, flyboy. She prefers helpful, healing types –“

 

“You mean quacks-“

 

Helpful, healing types to laze-abouts like yourself.”

 

“I’m wounded.”

 

“You should be. Now shut up and fly.”

 

“Sir, yes sir!

 

“Cheeky bastard.”

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Marshal James Benson, Federal Marshals, sat once more ensconced in his office’s comfortable chair in Denver.  A steaming mug of coffee in one hand and a half-eaten bagel in the other, he paused in his inspection of the image of the plaster casting which hung suspended above his desk. Dropping the bagel to the plate from whence it came, that hand flicked up to manipulate the hologram.  It slowly spun, and then a two-fingered motion made with thumb and forefinger zoomed in on the spot which had caught his attention.

 

The image he was viewing had been taken from the crash site in Colorado, and the casting was of the impact in the snow that had been so drenched in blood – human blood, as later lab analysis had borne out. It was strange blood, however. The genetic material was one-hundred-percent human, but tiny artificial metallic particles had been laced liberally throughout it, seemingly inert. Then further analysis under a microscope had revealed the particles to be nanometer-scale machines, no longer active, suspended in the frozen blood sample.

 

But now, looking at the casting closely, Benson noticed something he hadn’t back on the day they’d come to investigate the site. Another finger-flick and the image magnified again, focusing on a part of the imprint near the upper breast. A hard, reversed set of imprints that looked like… “Looks like we’ve got something to go on now… What does it say?” he murmured, asking of himself. “Computer, mirror image.” He spoke, an order to the computer’s limited AI.

 

“Mirroring.” Came the response, and no sooner had the words finished being spoken than the new, reversed image popped into existence in the hologram.

 

“ ’0241’” Read the top row of characters. The bottom row read simply “Nyx.”

 

“Nyx… Nyx… that sounds familiar. Computer, search ‘Nyx’. Historical references only.”

 

“Searching. Search complete. Nyx: Greek Mythology, the personification of night. Born of Chaos, Nyx was purportedly powerful enough that Zeus feared her wrath.”

 

“Hmm.” He thought to himself.  He pulled that image off to the side, and reassigned focus to the overall image, looking at the contour of the plaster cast. Just like his first inspection in the bitter cold on that mountainside, the form the cast belied was full of hard, harsh angles and articulated joints. Irrationally, his first thought had been that the… victim, for the lack of a better term to describe someone who’d been attacked by a Comanche helicopter (as further investigation had identified it to be), had been some sort of cyborg or robot. But the name on the suit… the name. Robots had no use for fearful names, and they also didn’t bleed - especially not as much as the victim at the site had. Cyborg was still on the table, but… hold on.

 

“Computer, magnify abdominal section. Freeze.” He rapped his knuckles on the desk. Something else he hadn’t noticed at the time – a small, almost spikelike protrusion into the abdomen, jagged edges about the protrusion. “The exit cavity.” He muttered.

 

“Computer, make a record.”

 

“You are on record.”

 

“Marshal James Benson, Federal Marshals. Crash site subject appears to have been female, possibly with the callsign Nyx, as demonstrated by the cutaway of the upper right breastplate I’m attaching to this record.” He did that literally, moving the file to the record’s image. It attached. “I will continue my investigation and research, but I will note that I need more evidence to gain a fuller understanding and more basis to posit further hypothesis from. ” Making an across-the-throat gesture with his finger, the AI responded to the unspoken command and cut the recording.

 

“Send that to HQ in OKC. “

 

“Sending… sent.”

 

And now I wait for some sort of response, Benson thought to himself.

 

And wait he did. For several weeks, he heard nothing back, despite making two more reports on the subject. After the fourth one went a week without reply, he got fed up, and called the Head Marshal of Colorado directly.

 

“Jose Martinez, Federal Marshals. To whom am I speaking?”

 

“James Benson, Federal Marshals. I’m assigned to the Breckenridge case.”

 

“Ah. I think I know what you’re on the phone to talk about, Marshal, and I’ve been instructed already to inform you that the case is closed.” Benson blinked. Closed?

 

“Closed, sir?” he asked aloud, his words echoing his thoughts. “It hasn’t been solved yet. We still don’t know who the subject –“

 

Martinez sighed. “Benson, all I know is that someone with a paygrade way above mine told me it was closed. That, as far as I’m concerned, is that. And that should be enough for you, too.”

 

“But, sir –“

 

“End of discussion. Don’t push it, James. Have a good one, you hear?”

 

With that, the line went dead, and Marshal James Benson’s mind went into high gear.

Edited by Mara Lithaen
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Floating in a cocoon of darkness, a presence manifested itself in the void. It had form, and it had shape, but it was damaged. It had no business in the void, but it was in pain.

 

What on – why is… why is… my brain so… ungh… it’s dark here. Am I… And the consciousness struggled, wrestling with concepts it knew intimately though the pain made it difficult to focus. Am I dead? The consciousness asked of the void.

 

And the void laughed back at it. “No, my daughter.” The laugh which greeted the question was not angry or dark itself – no, it was warm, alive with love and mischief. It was… a mother’s laugh, and the words reminded the consciousness that it was female. “No, my Nyx. You aren’t dead, though you are betwixt and between. You are neither truly here, nor truly there. Do you know who I am?

 

The consciousness felt small and insignificant against the void surrounding her, greater than worlds, old as time.  No, I know neither who nor what you are, mighty one.

 

“I am Nyx, your namesake… though I am given to understand that mine is not your given name. Even still, it is a brave one who takes up the name of a god. And you are brave, my daughter; your courage knows no bounds. You use my shadows to shroud yourself in darkness, taking revenge upon those who have created your kind. Your recklessness, alas, does not know bounds either. It is for this that you are before me, wrapped in my embrace. You need, you must, learn to control your impulses, lest my child Thanatos find himself carrying you to the Elysian Fields once more.

 

You may stay here, and my child can carry you the rest of the way to the Fields, where you will never know pain or sorrow again. Or you can seize the opportunity I will grant you, and return to the lands of mortals. What say you, my daughter?”

 

The consciousness-that-was-called-Nyx pondered the choices before her. On the one hand, she was tired of fighting against the forces arrayed against her and hers every day of her life, and dearly desired to rest… But I can’t. Mama and Uncle Hunter would destroy the world again to save me… any of the kids. And I can’t let them do that either… and I can’t let the Project go on operating as it has been since the day they started playing God.

 

 “Then it seems as if you’ve already made your choice, daughter.”

 

I have.

 

And the void seemed to smile, feeling abruptly welcoming and warm of its own. “I expected no less of you, daughter.” A warm breeze seemed to waft the-consciousness-called-Nyx toward something new, something old, and something familiar all at once. The darkness gradually began to give way to light. “You bear my name well. Go forth into the world, and may it be known that you have my favor! May the shadows never fail you, and may the moon be darkest when you need it most; may it shine brightest when it most befuddles and betrays your foes. May it smite them about the eyes and blind them to you.

 

May it be that I do not see you again until your final Fate comes to pass. Go, my daughter…” With each word, the voice got softer, sweeter, and more and more like a memory of a voice than a physical presence. With each word, the world brightened.

 

And then, abruptly, Nikita Walker’s eyes flew open, awakening in her hospital bed. She blinked, taking in the low lighting. Her eyes flicked about the room, trying to get her bearings. The windows betrayed the night outside, and her eyes lit upon the massive figure seated at her bedside, and a familiar warmth filled her heart. She tried to say his name, but her voice came out as little more than a croak.

 

It seemed the croak did not go unnoticed, however.  The figure grunted, lifting his head. “I’ll be damned… you’re awake.” He said in a tone of some wonder. Nikita smiled weakly, and tried to speak again, once more producing more of a croak than words. The figure shook his head. “Stupid, of course you’re parched. Here, Niki.” He said, pouring a glass of water from the room’s sink and tilting her up so she could drink it without spilling the contents of the glass everywhere.

Nikita drank like a thirsty woman thirty days in the desert finding her first mountain stream. The water was cold and delicious and the most delightful thing she’d ever had the pleasure to drink. The glass steadily drained under her attention, and when it was empty, the figure moved to refill the glass. Nikita cleared her throat, and tried speech again. “I told you… n-not to call me that, Uncle Hunter.” She said, coughing halfway through, her throat no longer quite feeling like it would tear itself apart.

 

“Yep, you did. You’ll always be little Niki to me though. Deal with it.” He said, his tone and his features cheerfully taunting. I’m glad it was him who woke up with me… mom wouldn’t be so… so… Nikita thought, trying to form the word she searched for in her mind, before failing. I’ll think of the word later.

 

“What happened, Uncle Hunter?” Nikita asked, moving the hospital bed so she was sitting up, mostly.

 

“What happened? You decided to do an instant replay of your momma’s attempt at running from an attack chopper.” Hunter replied, his features losing some of their playfulness.

 

“I remember that bit…” Nikita said. Her hand flew to her stomach. She traced the line of stitches where a scar would form, much like her mother’s . “It hurt so bad, Uncle. It…” she said, her eyes squeezing shut as her mind replayed that last moment, and fire lanced across her back where the rod of tungsten had come in, doing its best to end her.

 

“Ssh. You don’t need to explain what getting shot feels like to me, hon.” He said, and laid a massive hand on her shoulder. “I’ve got enough experience with it myself. You’re lucky your armor managed to do as much for you as it did. The nanogel kept you alive long enough for Doc, Ivan and Two-Twelve to show up, after they dealt with that damned helo.” He said, and stopped. Nikita was looking down at herself, transfixed with memory and the feel of her torn, mending skin under her fingers. His fingers went under her chin, and he tilted her head up so that she’d look at him.

 

“Nikita, your mom’s going to be pissed, no two ways about it. And part of it’s at you for getting in the situation to begin with. Get ready for it. But as for me, I’m just glad we’re getting you out of this hospital in a walker –“ he said, one corner of his mouth quirking up in a grin at his pun,” and not a casket.”

 

Tears welled at the corners of Nikita’s eyes. Wordlessly, her arms went around her uncle’s frame as best they could, and he did the best he could without hurting her by accident. Uncle and niece stayed that way for a while, before the medic came padding around in his hospital exo. “Sorry to disturb, “ he began. “Sensors told us you were awake a while ago, but we also knew Hunter here was in the room. We informed your mom that you were awake, though, kid. She’s on her way.” He said, and he turned to leave, before looking back over his shoulder. “I advise the two of you brace for shock. She’s in a fine old fury.”

 

Nikita gulped. What was the saying? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? It should have said ‘hell hath no fury like a mother enraged’. I’m beginning to think I should have stayed in… that place in my dream. She thought to herself, trying to dredge up the memories but mostly failing, only recalling warmth and comfort. She shook herself mentally. Ready or not, here it comes.

Edited by Mara Lithaen
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