Thursday, May 17, 2007

Just 'cause - Chapter 18 - Heads Explode

If there was one thing Rowena couldn't seem to get used to, it was the slow agony of peeling off bloodied wound dressing. Coagulated blood had bonded to both the dressing itself and the bandages used to hold them. It was a fascinating thing to watch her skin stretch slightly before the force was enough to seperate it from the medical gauze, but it was painful in that annoying way that heightened her skin's sensitivity to an unbearable factor. It gave her goosebumps when she cleaned the wounds with cold water, and every dab with the towel elicited a new small grunt of discomfort.

There were still some red spots on the towel when she was done. She'd definately have to take it easy the next few days.

In comparison to that, redressing the wounds was almost pleasant. The first aid kit from the chopper still served as the medicine cabinet for Rowena, but it was well-stocked with everything she needed for her own short-term care. The new bandages were fresh and soothing, though - as always - they felt too tight even as she was tying them. Finally done with that, she slipped into a fresh tanktop, walked out of the bathroom and switched off the light inside. Per Mark's recommendation, she treated herself to a tablet's worth of painkillers - mmmh, that paracetamol taste in her mouth to keep the iron-esque flavor of blood company. She chased it with a glass of water and sat down on the bed, waiting to feel better. Mark had thoughtfully provided a new firearm for her - a brand-new Five-seveN, USG (United States Government) model. External safety, single-action/double-action trigger.

Field-stripping the pistol was automatic; she racked the slide back slightly, pushed the takedown lever and pulled the slide off the gun's body. Rowena saw that the gun was clean - well, as far she could tell in that light without a magnifying glass. She reassembled the firearm and dry-fired it once - a satisfying click from the striking hammer echoed through her skull.

This is your tool, Rowena.

Use it wisely.


There was something like a knock on the door; she put the guns into the back of her pants, gangster style, and walked up. Her right knee felt off - probably strained a muscle or two in the fight, she thought, and added a new cold treatment to her to-do list -, but she made it to the door and swung it open, expecting Mark or the room service or maybe Queen Victoria - well, somebody.

She slammed it back against the frame in anger.

Stumbling back toward the bed, she allowed herself to collapse onto the sheets. All she wanted to do was sleep, shut her eyes, sleep this country off and wake up at home, or - failing that - New York City. Some place where she could feel safe.


It would've taken a high-speed camera to fully appreciate the depth of Rowena's reflex, but she had the gun loaded and ready to fire in the blink of an eye. Looking around and listening for further sounds, she backed herself into a corner - admittedly, not the best tactic, but the best she could do against an invisible attacker. Where the hell had the Hand gotten stealth suits?

Then, suddenly, nothing happened.

Rowena took a step into the room and began to sweep it, checking under the bed (she had to keep herself from laughing at that one) and the bathroom, but found nothing. Remembering Freyr's inhuman agility, she grabbed an errant broom with her left hand and started to swipe it through the air as fast and as unpredictable as she could make it.


That came from behind her - she whipped her body around, banging the broomstick against the wall without finding anything else. She stumbled backwards, backing away from the attacker, until she bumped into something and tumbled to the ground. Moaning from the pain of reopened wounds, she dropped the broom, raised herself back on shaky feet and shambled into the bathroom. The neon light over the mirror flickered menacingly when she put her hands onto the sink, desperate for something to rest her weight on. The dizziness was getting worse; she managed to open up the faucet, felt something wet on her forehead and reached up.

When her hand came back down, it was bloody. She dipped it into the torrent of cold water, half-laughing from her personal experience with that particular trope, but she felt more blood trickle down from her forehead and looked up to inspect the damage. Mirror-Rowena gave her a toothy grin and let her leather-gloved hands tap against the glassy surface between them, leaving bloody handprints in thin air.

Startled, Rowena stumbled backwards, hitting the wall and feeling the impact of the gun in her waistband against her back. Everything in her was on fire, especially her hands - she looked down and saw them red, not from the blood on them, but the blood in them. The small cuts on her arm were widening while she watched and oozing blood, too. Scenarios played through her head: a panicked, overtrained mind desperately trying to assemble the disparate information into a conspiracy theory, so to speak. What could it be? Some sort of weapon? Freyr with a stealth suit and a blood prong, she thought, then stumbled outside and went for the first aid kit; without further thought, she grabbed an Atropine auto-injector and stabbed it into her thigh.

"How's life for you, robot?" Mirror-Rowena asked; she was now lying on the bed, without a coat, and wearing preciously little but a corsage and a leather mini-skirt in matching black, with a fishnet shirt over her torso and the customary leather gloves on her hands.

Black grease coursed through her veins, poison redlining it on the highway to her heart. With futile gestures, she tried to stem the flood, her senses sharpened to a degree where she could actually see the heartbeat that carried the atropine upward. Then it was in her chest, and for a second there was nothing, no breathing, no pain.

Her fingernails were bleeding. This time, Rowena screamed.


Something pierced Mark's eardrum, too quick and high-pitched to be reliably identified, but it stirred an instinct in him that he didn't know he had. He snapped up his USP and stalked off, that fatal switch thrown in his head with hardly a rational thought in its way. It was no fault of his own; it was in his blood, his genes, passed down from a long line of warriors before him.



"How the mighty have fallen," Mirror-Rowena purred, still lounging on the bed; before her, Rowena was crawling on the floor, trying to claw her way back into the light. The light above flickered, alternating her view of the world between frozen and blurry. She reached out for the first aid kit, but then the pressure in her knee forced her hands to clutch it. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a small voice kept telling her that holding your wounds does not make the pain go away. But like a child in a thunderstorm, there was that little divide between knowing and believing that kept her from letting go.

Then, Rowena was on her back, her mirror image above her with a wicked upward slant of her mouth and an animal gleam in her eyes.

"I'm dressed like a whore. What does that say about you?"

Before Rowena could fight it, she got her first kiss. It was warm and wet and lingered on her lips long after it was over, freezing the chaos and the pain around them in nothingness. Rowena looked up at the image, unsure of what to say - if, indeed, there was anything that could be said. The image licked her lips, adding another glossy film of saliva to the vibrant red lipstick on her face. The color was unbearably intense; Rowena smelled cherries, like that Turin orchard from years past.

"You can have it all," came a new voice: Rowena cocked her head to the side to see her father resting his weight on that ornate cane of his. She saw herself - still a child, she thought, but how much had she grown? - being carried on Trinity's shoulders, picking cherries from the trees and collecting them in her summer dress. She remembered how she'd ruined it that day.

No, she hadn't. No cherries there yet. Still blossoming.

She turned around, alone in the orchard, lost in an ocean of cherry blossoms those are on japanese cherry trees shut up shut up! and engulfed in a white storm of petals. Grown up, still wearing the summer dress. All white...

"You can't stay here," Daddy said; she looked down onto her dress. Red stains...

The sky bled, staining the never-falling cherry blossoms with red drops. The drops repelled by the surface those are lotus blossoms now i know shut up. She started to run.


Mark found Rowena's door locked; for a split second, some measure of propriety climbed on top of the heap in Mark's head and told him to knock first, dammit. After all, it went on to suggest, Rowena could be undressed or in a bad mood or doing...well, woman stuff. Mark had to roll his eyes at himself as he knocked - when had he ever needed good manners?

"Rowena? Are you okay? I thought I heard you shouting..."

She's in her pajamas, he thought. Ah, if even that. She's in her undies, trying to sleep, and you just try to waltz in. She'll knock you into next Wednesday and she'll be damn fucking right, too.

Mark knocked again.

There's gonna be pain, he thought. But he had to be sure.

"Rowena? I'm coming in now!"

Not the face, not the face...


Rowena knew how to run. There's a secret to running, she had learned, and it involved setting one foot before the other in a manner not entirely disconnected from walking. This was a morale-bolstering piece of information for Rowena, because she had learnt how to walk and was now eager to apply those lessons in a new manner. She set her counterweights - those sticks of ligament and bone, clad in flesh, that people called arms - in motion and took a step forward. The ground thundered beneath her feet as the atoms of her shoe crashed into the atoms of the ground, decelerating her foot and sending a shockwave rippling up through her leg. And what is a leg, if not a biomechanical shock absorber of the highest caliber? Things became compressed, moved in concert, soaked up kinetic energy into potential energy, dissipated the impact until there was but the merest bit of force applied to her knee.

It exploded in pain.

There's a moment of clarity when you stumble; Rowena lived a whole life in one of them, knowing the terrible certainty of hitting the ground. The laws of physics would budge for no man, no girl, no monster. Time thawed just to let her perceive the movement of her head relative to the ground; with eyes wide open, she hit the dirt.

Her look shot up to Daddy, who still stood, unmoving.

"I can't stay here, either," he said; Rowena watched in horror as the white petals folded into tiny projectiles, enhancing their beauty and deadliness by a thousandfold. A swarm of immaculate, unbearable white insects rode the wind through the orchand and cut Daddy into ribbons; Rowena somehow managed to unstick herself from the picture and got back on her feet, then hobbled over to the bloody remains of her father, all bloody and dirty and beautiful. She felt her legs disintegrate under her; almost at the body, she stumbled over some unseen obstacle and shattered against the ground like glass.


Just like old times, Mark thought, racked the slide on his USP and gave the hotel door a well-deserved kick.

A note to aspiring hitmen: there are few things as contraindicated as trying to kick in a door of unknown strength in a time-critical phase of your mission. Aside from the fact that it is a loud and obvious thing to do, it is also far from certain: some doors will gladly absorb five kicks or more, others will be deadbolted and thus completely immune to your charms, and yet a different breed of door exists for whom the very concept of a lock is irredeemably flawed, as they will splinter on impact and trap your foot. Mark recalled one such accident; shooting his target down the hallway with his foot stuck in the door to the bathroom was, undoubtedly, not one of his finer moments.

The door flew open obediently: nobody said that practice in the "kick doors open" department wasn't helpful.

Rowena was, indeed, in the room, crying and bleeding from her wounds. Worse, she had her gun. Mark stepped in, and for some reason he would be unable to articulate for the rest of his life to his own satisfaction, he stepped in with his USP raised.


"...and that takes us right back to where we left off," the mirror image said; Rowena was back on her feet, at least, but still helpless to resist the caresses of her shadow. The temptress took a step back, gave her a crooked grin and then stabbed her leather-gloved hand into Rowena's chest. The girl gasped; the shadow still grinned.

"I'm tired of this 'blood of the innocent' crap," the shadow said. "I say, true innocence does not bleed. True innocence is light. Do you see it?"

Rowena raised her hands in protest to find that she was, indeed, light. She could see the blood, the wickedness and the pain drain out of her system, leaving behind only the transmuted veil of photos, vague in shape but pure in purpose.

"This is your pain, Rowena," the shadow said, its voice deep; when she looked up again, the monstrous visage of Mark was grinning at her. "This is our pain," he said.

Rowena found the weight of the gun in her hand oddly comforting. cling to.

"This is your tool, Rowena," the shadow said. "Use it wisely."


Mark watched in horror as Rowena raised the gun in her hand to a firing stance; in response, he clicked his own safety off.

"You don't wanna do this, Rowena. Trust me. I don't hesitate. I'm faster," Mark said. He made it sound like it was a fundamental axion of reality, as if a world where Rowena could shoot first would make no sense at all and offend the very idea of reality. Unfortunately, Mark wasn't remotely sure about that.

Nothing in her eyes. There was nothing in her eyes that said anything about what she was thinking. Was she listening at all?


The shadow stayed silent while Rowena readied her weapon. The safety was smooth as it released the gun's hammer to the vagaries of a life in service to the trigger.


"Goddammit, kiddo! Don't make me do this!" Mark sneered as he watched Rowena click her safety off in response. His left hand slowly snaked out for her gun, hoping to turn it away in the moment of truth - but that was, pardon the pun, a long shot.


"What are you waiting for?" the shadow asked.
"I'm not this is crazy think Rowena think sure what to do."
"Pull the trigger, Rowena. The first thing you learned."


Mark's finger moved the trigger, millimeter by terrifying millimeter. He knew when his gun would fire. He prayed it wouldn't.


There was a flaw in Rowena's body of light, an imperfection, a crack, a mold, a virus. It began in her brain, and then it spread out, contaminating her, diluting her clarity and corrupting her very soul. It was a sentence, bubbled up from deep below where she had buried her old self.

A still fighter is a dead fighter.

"I'm standing still," she said, and for the first time in God knows how long, she could hear herself in the distance.


"I'm standing still," Rowena said. Mark gave her a look.
"For God's sake, Rowena, STAND DOWN."
"Stand...standing still."


Rowena lowered her weapon.

"A still fighter is a dead fighter. You tried to steal that from me."
"You must give it up," the shadow said.
"It is mine."

Without warning, Rowena's hand shot out and grabbed the shadow by its heart. She could feel the pain and misery flowing back into herself as the image before her screamed in terror.

"Daddy said I could have it all," she said. "And now you die. Goodbye."


"A still fighter is a dead fighter," Rowena said, her gun unwavering. "You tried to steal that from me."
"What the...Rowena, what are you talking about?"
"It is mine!" she cried; Mark had no reply.

"Daddy said I could have it all," she said, a single tear on her cheek. "And now you die. Goodbye."

Two shots.

No comments: