Carbon and Extractor took a small hybrid car out the “back door” of Deadshot’s land and headed south west. They managed to syphon enough gas to keep it running until they reached into the Appalachians, but the engine in the old car eventually died, leaving three quarters of a tank unused. “We walk from here.”
Extractor balked. “Did I hear you mention The City back there? And Colorado? If you think I am going that far on foot, you’re out of your mind.” Carbon turned to face him dead on. They had barely spoken since leaving the New York area, mostly because she knew it would be a confrontation and she hadn’t felt like dealing with it at the time. However, she knew it was inevitable and it was probably best to get it out of the way.
Out came her sword. Extractor backed away and put his hands up defensively. “Whoa! Wait, there’s no need for that… We can be reasonable, right?” She slid the blade up along the side of his face, not touching his skin, but piercing the scarf that swaddled his face. With a flick of her wrist, the fabric was sliced and fell away from his head. “‘Extractor’, eh? It is better than ‘Sponge’, isn’t it Norman?”
The color drained from his face. “Y-you recognize me?” he stammered. Carbon smirked. “I not only worked alongside String Theory and those guys before all this, I was a cop. I knew who all of you were. Rumor has it that you know who did all of this…” she gestured around so Norman could take in the landscape for emphasis.
The sky was slate grey and the surrounding area was filled with sickly looking deciduous trees that were suffering from the years of limited sunlight, and pines that were starting to show huge patches of dead needles. None of the underbrush moved with so much as a squirrel or a bird; most small animals did what they could to conserve their energy, only coming out when necessary thanks to the dwindling supply of food.
And then there were the walking dead. No piece of land seemed free from roaming bands of cannibalistic undead. “Rumor also has it that Arachne has set up a city in Colorado. We’ll pass by The City on the way there, and I figured I’d stop by my old home and see how it’s doing. Judging by your reaction I’m guessing the little birdy that implicated you in the apocalypse was pretty spot-on. Don’t bother lying to me, I can tell when people lie.”
They packed up what supplies they could realistically carry and started off on foot. “We stick to the east/west roads for now. Once we’re in more open land, we’ll avoid them if possible.” Norman snorted, feeling naked without his scarf covering his face for the first time in years. “What, are you afraid of zombies and bandits?” Carbon glanced over with a cocked eyebrow and a smile. “Do you want to fight every mile between here and Denver? Even I get tired eventually.”
Norman nodded. As much as he hated it, out here, he had to rely on Carbon. She was stronger, better trained and physically better adapted to life out in the wild. A fleeting thought crossed his mind; Didn’t she heal insanely fast? That would be an incredibly helpful ability for him to posses. He tucked the idea into the back of his mind for the time being. They walked for hours up winding roads that led up into the mountains. Norman couldn’t tell what direction they were facing, but Carbon seemed to have no problem telling north from south and also had no issue berating him for falling behind.
“Norm, you’re going to have to pick up the pace. At your rate, the world’s going to end on its own before we get there.” He was huffing and out of breath. “I’m not a mutant that can go for hours like you. I need a break.” They were on a stretch of road wrapping around the midsection of a tall mountain, the only thing separating them from a fifteen hundred foot drop was a guardrail. The road was clearly visible for hundreds of feet in either direction and the rough, sheer face of the mountain stretched above them, so there was no chance of a zombie accidentally dropping in from above. It was a defensible a place as any.
She shrugged. “Fine. we’ll rest for a while, you get some food in you. You have one hour.”
The landscape between the new City and Arachne’s city outside of Denver smeared together into an impressionist painting made of brown, white and green. Cavalier had never flown so fast before, but he wanted to get to the new city as quickly as possible. He was certain he could enlist the help of the former villain.
Cavalier’s mind drifted as he rocketed over the western half of the midwest. Arachne apparently had established a full infrastructure; her people had running water, electricity, public works like garbage disposal, and a standing army/police force. The best Cavalier’s people had ever managed was a militia, and that William had a great deal of influence with them. He was well known as a competent hunter and tracker, and brave as any, and that was before anyone knew he could transform into an immovable steel juggernaut.
No, he needed soldiers that would obey him and exert his power. The town would be orderly, and he would lead. Dissent would not be tolerated; Cavalier was a hero of the people, a god among men born to exert justice on the unjust. Had he not provided protection to the people of the town? Had he not earned their loyalty, keeping them safe through years of hardship? Had he not placed himself and his one real friend in harm’s way to fend off hordes of walking undead and legions of robots? Sure, the people had quickly taken up arms to defend themselves, but without the example of Cavalier and crater, they would have scattered. how many would be dead or living like animals in the forests?
That thought snapped him from his reverie; Crater. Before he did anything, he needed to see if there was something, anything he could do to save his friend. Ruling would feel hollow indeed without his closest friend. His trip took on new urgency and he doubled his efforts to fly to the new city before nightfall.
The tall, spidery architect of armageddon stared down at the orderly flow of her city below. In the years following her manufactured apocalypse, her carefully crafted refuge had grown into a small metropolis. Arachne was smiling, as she had done almost daily since the “end”. Under her direction her city had grown to the size of a large pre-collapse town, with close to a million residents. Almost three hundred thousand of them were members of the military, a strong, disciplined force that acted as army, police and judges. Supplemented by the robotic soldiers Golem had created, the city of Nephilia was powerful and enjoyed many of the benefits of a typical 21rst century municipality.
Most of the citizens were happy, or at least appeared so. Arachne’s laws were strict, and the military’s enforcement of them draconian. Citizens had little reason to speak out against the government since they were well taken care of, but even suspected crimes were dealt with severely. Queen Arachne left most of the day to day justice to her street soldiers, who often abused their power.
As long as everything continued to function, Arachne didn’t care. She had everything she had aspired to; absolute power, control, and a worldwide network at her disposal. She had daily communication with Golem, who was enjoying a similar level of comfort and power in eastern Europe. Glass had stopped communicating a couple of years earlier, but all reports suggested she was still firmly in charge up in the frozen north. Arachne had shrugged it off; Glass’s land was hardly ideal for any resource and Arachne had barely tolerated the woman anyway. Let her live in communicative silence in a land dominated by snow and bears.
It was getting late, but she had a visitor on the way. Long range sensors and a huge spy network that reached five hundred miles in every direction (including the ever growing tendrils of her citadel’s network crawling through the earth’s crust) had warned her about Cavalier flying at great speed toward her city. She smiled. She’d been watching from afar, occasionally attacking with robots just to get a closer look at the settlement at the base of his mountain. All things considered they were doing quite well.
Except for the former heroes. She’d seen them degrade from the world’s most famous heroes to a couple of drunken bullies. Arachne had hoped his desperation and isolation would one day send him her way. This was her greatest triumph; Earth’s mightiest hero, reduced to a belligerent drunk pushing around villagers for beer and sex. That was perhaps an even greater victory than conquering the world. Breaking the world was easy; it was a rare planet sitting in the Goldilocks zone of a medium sized star with the perfect storm of ingredients for life. Breaking that perfect balance was easy.
But breaking a hero, a man who’d dedicated his life to protecting the innocent and enforcing justice, seeing him turn into the very thing he’d fought against for years, that was art. She knew what he wanted, likely before he even did. His little town was growing beyond him, with people taking care of themselves, organizing against the elements and outside threats. He was no longer necessary, and while he’d believed he fought for justice, he’d really been fighting for his own glory.
Men like Cavalier were easy to manipulate. He was effectively indestructible, except he had a single major weakness: hubris. Ego was a trojan that allowed anyone with the will to exploit it a back door into a person’s mind. Arachne had every intention of letting him have whatever he wanted. Of course, he was going to have to work for it. Otherwise he might get suspicious. But make him negotiate, let him think he’d won something…
She’d have an ally, and her influence would start to spread to the smaller settlements. She would, by proxy, rule everyone. “Captain Ellis.” She said. “Yes my lady.” came a strong, deep voice in reply. “Ready a platoon of robots. I want at least two centaurs, more if you can find spares. Also, three dozen soldiers, six of whom are elite. have them come up to my study now.”
“Is something the matter lady?” He sounded concerned.
“No. Not at all.” She was smiling wide, her fangs shining in the light of 20 monitors. “A hero approaches. I want you to let him right in if he approaches the front gates. If not,make sure the bots stand down. I want him here, so no intervention. Let him think he’s intimidating everyone. It’s as I wish it.”
“Yes ma’am. As you wish.” Said the captain.
She smiled even wider. it never got old, the supplication, the total dominance she held over the men of Nephilia. She’d bedded close to a hundred in the past seven years. Each one strong and young, and now completely loyal.
Maybe, she thought, she might find similar use of Cavalier.
“Rest time’s over, up and at ‘em.” Norman had been sitting and eating for just over an hour, the entire time Carbon stood near the guard rail, looking over the cliff across the open valley below. She’d barely moved.
“Can’t we wait a little longer?” Norman whined. Carbon turned to face him. “It’s been longer than the hour I said you could have already. It’s time to go. Now.” Norman grumbled and started packing his things. Carbon still stood at the guardrail, one foot propped up on it, staring off into the distance.
A thought occurred to him at that moment. All it would take was a push, and he’d be alone again. He stood and hefted his backpack. His feet still hurt, his legs were tired and he wanted nothing more than to crawl into a nice warm bed and sleep. “What are you looking at?”
She never turned her head. “Are you ready?” Norman smiled a little and let out a frustrated laugh. “I’m packed, but I’m not sure I’m ready.” He was slowly walking up behind her. She barely turned her head “If you keep complaining every time we have to get going, this is going to be a long, tiresome trip.”
He started to say something, but she finished “I may just cut your tongue out to spare myself the agony. Don’t worry, we’ll figure out a way to get the information I need out of you.” That gave him pause, for just a second. He walked up beside Carbon and an idea struck him. He took off his pack and looked over the edge. He let out a low whistle. “That’s a hell of a drop. How far do you think that is?”
Carbon glanced down. “Maybe fifteen hundred feet? Maybe a little m-shit!” Norman feigned a slip and dropped his bag. Carbon lurched forward and caught the bag, her other hand going up to stop Norman’s fall. Exactly as he’d hoped. Carbon was leaning forward and over balanced, so man once known as Sponge gave her a shove. A wide smile cracked his face as she tipped forward and she appeared destined to fly over the rail.
Unexpectedly fast, she flung the backpack against the cliff face Norman had been leaning against, and her high-tech glove on her other hand caught the guardrail and held her fast. Norman’s moment of victory turned to one of terror as Carbon grabbed the front of his jacket, stood up straight and shoved him over the guardrail. One foot dangled over a chasm while the other barely rested on the edge of the cliff. His hands grabbed Carbon’s forearm. He was terrified.
But then a wave of smugness washed over him, his hand was wrapped around the bare skin of her wrist. As he started to smile she looked him in the eye. “I know what you’re thinking Norman. You know I can heal, and you also know that if you concentrate hard enough, you can probably drain enough of me to stop my heart and kill me.” His grip tightened, but his smile immediately faded. She continued. “Allow me to point out the pitfalls in your plan. The more damage I take, the longer it takes for me to heal. At fifteen hundred feet up, you’d reach terminal velocity three hundred feet before you hit the ground. Look at those rocks.”
He glanced down. The ground below was a landscape of loose rock and jagged boulders. “The impact would rip you to pieces. if you didn’t get all of my powers, you’d probably just manage to keep yourself alive a few hours longer before they faded and you died. Even if you got all of them, it would likely take days of healing before you’d be well enough to walk. How long do your absorbed powers last? My sources say you get a day, max. Also, I’d probably land on you. I’m about one fifty. How do you think that would feel? Imagine being stuck down there for a day, broken, your spine shattered, unable to stop the pain. Actually, healing fast is agonizing. The pain would likely drive you mad.”
“And that assumes a bear or wolves don’t happen by. Imagine being eaten, slowly, while you re-heal. It would take them forever to eat all of you. So give it a try, hotshot.” Norman was sweating in fear. Everything she said made sense. He was lucky she didn’t just drop him and kill him right then. He let go of her wrist. “Smart boy. Now we won’t be doing this again, right? Because if I have to worry about it, I’ll just drop you now.”
He realized he was shaking violently in terror. He shook his head slowly. “Good.” Carbon smiled and hoisted him over the guardrail then let go. Norman ran to the opposite wall and hugged it, grateful that he was at the bottom of this particular cliff. Carbon started down the road. “Pick up your pack. If anything is broken, you’re S.O.L. without it. And you can march in that mess for the rest of the day. If you’re lucky, we’ll find a stream or pond before nightfall and you can clean up.
It was at that moment that Norman realized he had wet his pants.
Several hours later, as the sun dipped in the west, Carbon set up camp next to a clear stream that conveniently ran from a small waterfall and a pool that was at least three feet deep. “I bet that chafes. Get clean, wash your clothes and put some of this on.” She tossed him a small tube of antibiotic cream. “I’ll get a warm meal going. I wrap yourself up in a wool blanket once you’re dry and warm up.”
Norman realized why she’d waited until sundown to let him clean; it wasn’t to torture him, although she clearly could care less about his obvious discomfort. No, a wet naked man stood no chance alone in the wilderness at night. He now needed her to ensure he saw sunrise. He shook his head and chuckled quietly. It was clearly stupid of him to think he would ever stand a chance outsmarting her, let alone think he could survive without her help.
He walked off to clean himself. Carbon watched him sulk off upstream. She understood his desperation earlier. She was beginning to suspect that he didn’t just know who had caused the worldwide destruction, but that he had been a major player in it. If that was the case, he would find no immunity, just a quick death. But not until she identified all those involved.
Later, once Norman was asleep, she would clean and bathe herself. She was beginning to smell like a wet dog and was having a hard time standing her own presence. For the time being she focused on starting a fire, and then getting beans and some jerky together so they could both enjoy a high protein, albeit salty meal.
Norman came back a half hour later wrapped in a blanket carrying his wet clothes. Carbon had fashioned a rack out of sticks for him to hang his clothes near the fire. “You’re very handy, you know that?” Norman said. “Some of us are more useful than others. Eat some food, we’re up at sunrise. I am going to have some questions for you soon. It’s not going to be fun for either of us. And I am not going to lie, if you had any part to play in what happened to the planet, I will kill you. Once you’re no longer useful, of course.”
Norman had grabbed some beans and jerky and was midway through biting a piece of jerky when Carbon finished. He swallowed hard. “What do you want to know?”
Carbon smiled. “I want to know the names of everyone involved in this. we’ve been piecing together everything that happened and we’ve concluded that no less than five separate attacks were carried out simultaneously.”
Norman swallowed his jerky and sniffed the beans. They smelled wonderful. He ate a spoonful. “I guess we’re having that talk now?” Carbon levelled an icy glare at him. “I guess so. I’ve also figured you’re a lot deeper in this than you would like me to know.” Norman continued to eat. “You were involved, weren’t you?”
Norman looked her in the eye. He expected judgement, anger or hate. There was nothing. If she was going to kill him, it wasn’t going to be soon. He choked on his food. “Does it matter?” Carbon’s expression never changed. “It will. I was a cop in my past life. Give me a reason to think you’re useful to me, to justice, and your lifespan will not have a definite expiration date, for now at least. Make it hard, and I will get the information I need, and we’ll go back to the cliff and we’ll see how right I was about that fall.”
Norman sat across a campfire from a tall, impossibly strong woman who he knew could and would kill him with little more than a thought. She’d dedicated her life to righting wrongs. She was a tool of justice and would not hesitate to make sure that it was delivered. Looking in her eyes, he saw his own death. He also saw a glimmer of hope. There was a degree of mercy in her eyes; he did not doubt that if and when she decided it was time for him to die, it was not going to be messy, as long as he didn’t give her a reason.
And there he was, in the wilderness, naked and wrapped in an OD green wool army blanket. He had no weapons, no armor, and no clothes. She had not only prepared him a warm meal and allowed him to bathe, she’d provided him with a means to avoid an infection caused by his own fear response. She was tough, maybe even a little brutal, but there was fairness and no cruelty. He definitely would not have been quite so lucky at the hands of Arachne or Golem.
He finished his meal and excused himself to the bed she’d set up for him. Maybe he should cooperate. This was probably as good as it was going to get.