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Of Dreams and Dust

Chapter Text

A fractured soul
with labored breath
awaits the dawn
but no sun rises; no wind soothes

What tattered angel will save
the lost one who dreams of death?
Can Heaven hear the cry
of the damned?

~ Fractured Soul (W.R.R.)

************************************************************

Brahms intruded on Otto’s thoughts as the wood-paneled private elevator rose through the heart of the building. As Balfour couldn’t hear him coming, he had to assume the man kept the music on in the penthouse all the time. Had he instructed him to? Otto shook his head. He couldn’t remember.

The doors slid open to reveal a sumptuous and sprawling dwelling. The Tuscan décor was subjected often to Balfour’s obsession with Feng Shui but Otto barely noticed that the artwork on the walls changed or that the place was free of clutter. He habitually ignored his surroundings when he wasn’t at work in the lab far below ground. The only charm of the penthouse level for him was the windows.

Vibration was probably what called his servant to him. Even the feel of the elevator’s movement, he supposed, if Balfour was that sensitive, could alert him that the boss was on his way. Of course, sensitivity wasn’t necessary when the metal tentacles struck the parquet floor around his boots on the way to the wall of glass.

He stood inches from it and stared out and down. The eight-sided skyscraper loomed 1600 feet over South Michigan Avenue at East Monroe, with the metropolis of Chicago’s business district spread out below him.

The architectural and technical marvel of the skyscraper had been the first indication that Chicago’s newest resident genius, the mysterious Oscar Ollre, would soon be doing great things – his company of designers and inventors redefining the way people lived their lives. Octagon Innovations had fulfilled its promise since the building’s completion again and again, becoming one of the top Fortune 500 companies within its first year.

All of this had been achieved without anyone actually seeing Mr. Ollre. The company was run by a lawyer, Hollis Rucker, who informed all curious parties that Mr. Ollre was not a well man and preferred his seclusion. The National Enquirer had immediately put a price tag of $10,000 on any photo or definitive information that would bring the elusive genius into the light.

In spite of that incentive, most inquiries into Mr. Ollre’s life, legal or illegal, were stopped cold outside the doors of his magnificent sanctum. None-the-less, strange rumors abounded, among them the claim that he employed a team of ‘hackers and crackers’, that the government would likely prefer to have behind bars, solely for the purpose of keeping his company, and his privacy, sacrosanct.

Sunset would begin in an hour. The motor of the dumbwaiter lift from the kitchens thrummed to life in the dining room. Soft sounds of metal and china being arranged into a grand meal did not distract Otto Octavius, a.k.a. Oscar Ollre, nor did the enticing aroma of gourmet food. The world waited … and though it had turned away from him, he would still work to fill its need, to heal its wounds – if only another way could be found.

One of the tentacle arms moved and with its camera eye, showed him the deaf-mute servant who stood behind him. Balfour was a young man but Rucker had assured him that he could be trusted. The nervous fear he always failed to hide might have made Otto wonder but he had proven his loyalty beyond doubt.

He turned and followed Balfour into the dining room, where the servant would eat with his employer at Rucker’s request. The President of Octagon Innovations was always making requests like that of Balfour – see that he eats, tell me if he doesn’t sleep – forever fretting over their paragon genius’ health. They could feed his body, but there was so very little to feed his mind.

Otto lifted a crystal glass of red wine and the sudden memory of Rosalie’s smile struck him. What had their ritual toast been? Then the vision slipped away, leaving him alone with the whispers of the four artificially intelligent metal arms. They all sang the same urgent thought into his mind: the work waits.

Hastily, he drank the wine in two gulps. His face full of concern, Balfour rose to fill his glass again but Otto shook his head. He ate quickly. The dedication and passion he had once felt for the work was gone – but the other minds drove him on.

************************************************************

The left-hand lid of the dumpster didn’t close all the way. Staring out of the peephole gap, Rooke Dryden watched the pair of heavy cops, huffing and sweating, run down the alley and turn to the right. She didn’t dissolve the image of her own fleeing form from their minds until they were far enough away for her to make her escape.

Clambering out, she landed quietly on the wet asphalt and brushed off her cropped black leather jacket and faded jeans. Picking a piece of muddy Styrofoam off of her Dead Can Dance t-shirt, she walked back up to the main street.

She didn’t feel the cold of the darkening Chicago night but she was grateful for it. No one she passed stared at her for wearing a jacket and gloves, with a thick scarf wrapped high around her neck under her jaw. As for the patch of metal on her forehead, over her left eye, she could usually make them believe it was the latest fad in piercing, done to match the twin metal rings on the right side of her lower lip.

Rooke phased a silver grid into her eyesight that detected motion around her and walked into the first tattoo shop she found. The wad of stolen money came out of her pocket without a twinge of conscience. When the inker took in her youth and delicate figure and began to ask her age, she pinned him with her black eyes. He shook his head once before asking her what she wanted done.

“Fill the design in – black.”

The hollow tribal tattoo was revealed as she slipped her jacket and t-shirt off. Nubile young bodies in bras and out were too common a sight to the artist for comment but the arcane black and gray metal that wove in and out of her flesh elicited a stare. The tattoo design traced it, tried to make it art, but could not hide the alien nature of it.

Her arms, legs, and torso were laced with the strange metal. A spray of tiny white lights, like diamonds, winked over the swell of her left breast, pointing toward her collarbone. The mutant Spiral had called the work genius but her gift, which had enabled Rooke to walk, to live – had also made her a monster.

“It has to mask it, understand? They can think I’m a freak all they want, as long as they don’t know the truth.”

There was a pressure in his mind. He nodded that he understood. He would mask it, make it art, and hide the truth. “You got it,” he said, feeling slightly drunk.

She ran a black leather glove through the wisps of platinum hair that had escaped her ponytail before composing herself to be still for the next two or three hours.

The money would cover it but she thought about letting him take her home anyway. It had been so long since she’d felt the touch of another person and the craving was getting strong. Fingers in latex gloves didn’t count.

He wasn’t bad for an old hippie type – good muscles, too. It would settle the question of where she would sleep that night. Also, she would have to wipe their encounter from his mind anyway – may as well make the most of it.

First, of course, she’d have to carve out the fear her cybernetics had instilled and reroute his thoughts into the erogenous zones. Sighing, she closed her eyes and went to work on the mechanics of survival.

************************************************************

The laboratory was pristinely ordered and organized everywhere but around the computer where Otto worked. Diagrams, printed and hastily sketched, lay in disorderly piles on either side of him. An intricate moving blueprint construct revolved on the screen in front of him as his fingers flew over the keys.

A new fuel for the old solution? A new solution? Either way, tritium wouldn’t be a part of the equation. Peter Parker had been right – his calculations had been wrong, the fusion reactor unstable and uncontrollable. The cost of learning from that mistake had been high: the end of his life’s work, a dream of solving the energy problems of the world, and the death of his wife, Rosie.

His fingers stopped typing and pressed against his eyelids and temples in sudden misery. Holding in his pain, caging it inside, as he had once told Parker never to do with an emotion as strong as love, he felt his shoulders shake.

Cold metal touched his cheek, surprisingly gentle for such a monster. Opening his eyes, he stared at the adamantium-coated titanium thing that attempted to comfort his grief. The prehensile ‘mouth’ of it mimicked expression and mood in the form of a long black muzzle.

Each tentacle housed a tiny camera, a powerful spotlight, a strong metal coil for grasping delicate things, and a hidden lethal spike of Adamantium. The muzzles were most often three-fingered grasping tools, with smaller claspers in each finger for precise dexterity.

The other three rose and turned to him. They were his own ingenious invention, tools for controlling the fusion reactor, but he had never meant to be fused to them irrevocably or to have their AI minds whispering madness in his thoughts, changing him. If Rosalie had lived, would she recognize this wreck? He had become a thief, murderer, and arch-criminal – his reckless dream nearly destroying thousands of lives.

The recriminations tormented his thoughts but he said only, “I’m tired.”

They moved, braced, lifted. Set lightly on his feet, he stumbled to a small bedchamber, bare as a monk’s cell. The tentacles supported him to the bed, where they helped him remove his boots. He stretched out on top of the blankets in his clothes and lab coat, lying on his stomach and burying his face in his arms. The metal arms composed themselves and went still to allow him to sleep, their dark and shining lengths arching up from his spine before settling on the floor.

Even as he slept, they watched over him. One of them picked up its head to observe the servant when he arrived to straighten the lab, lest he disturb his master’s peace, but Otto had fallen into nightmare – peace and restful sleep eternally elusive.

************************************************************

It was always the same: the grunts and thrusts of the common blue-collar male – uninspiring, hollow. She had built the act up in her mind as a grand exchange, an intimate sharing, like so many unions she had witnessed when spying on other minds, other dreams. Reality never measured up whether they were talented or not and she was left feeling cheated, restless, and angry, every time.

Snoring loudly, the body beside her shifted and turned away from her. She had stopped his second round of advances neatly with an attack of the sleepies, due to pure boredom.

Rooke cast about for a distraction. Her bedmate’s dreams were predicable old news. Retreating into her own mind was too confining, so she ranged out into the sleeping minds of the city around her.

Just as she was slipping into the dream of a seventeen-year-old boy, to see how the other half lived, a psychic scream disrupted her telepathy. The wrenching agony of the cry pitched her, reeling, back into her own head.

Her breath came quickly as she lay still, shocked by the feeling of it: such raw power, such naked pain. Tentatively, her thoughts crept out again to seek the mind that had made the cry.

Who are you? she called, but heard no answer.

It was confusing. The taste of it had almost been telepathic and therefore able to speak to her. When the cry sounded again, she didn’t recoil but leapt to follow it. The thread led her to a mind full of tortured havoc, locked in a dream of horror.

Broken glass panes and slivers flew across a vast room. Some were small enough to slide inside the pupils of the woman with the pretty hazel eyes. Others were large enough to quarter her internal organs.

Rooke slipped into the viewpoint of the mind she was in, half planning to help him by nudging the dream to change, as that crackpot goodie telepath Xavier had once attempted to teach her. Yet when she tried to merge with it, the mind sensed her, as another telepath often would. Radiating calm and good intentions, she sought to assert control.

The mind attacked her. Madness rose up, choking her, and in the maelstrom of its power, she tracked five separate beings. Four were similar, like the minds of strange twins but independent. The fifth, the source of the madness, was the entity the others sought to defend.

If she had been anonymous, able to use her stronger dream-spinning ability properly, she might have tried to remain and help. Her telepathy wasn’t powerful and in the face of a very strong mind or the ravages of insanity, it splintered. This one, singly or en masse, was both.

Retreating violently, she landed in her own head again, panting. When the fear faded, she was left with a nagging curiosity.

“Who – or what – the hell was that?” she whispered.

************************************************************

Two years. It didn’t seem real. His fingertip traced the deep letters of her name in the stone.

Rain fell relentlessly but Otto didn’t notice it as he knelt before Rosie’s tombstone. A single light, provided by one of his tentacles, lit the name in the surrounding dark.

Rucker had invented a million excuses to keep him from finding this place. To keep him from knowing what her parents had done to excise him from their radiant child’s legacy – taking away from her in death the name she had born so proudly in life. He stared at the words and felt each cut that had carved them slice into his soul.

ROSALIE ANGELINA BRANCALE
BELOVED DAUGHTER
PERMITTE DIVIS CETERA
1962 – 2000

Leave the rest to the gods, the Latin phrase declared. It was from a poem by Horace, one of Rosie’s favorites. His fists clenched, striking the top of the stone. His head bowed between them as the tears ran, indistinguishable in the rain.

They had erased him. She would spend eternity bearing a name she had gladly shed to share his. Had they included Horace to honor her or to leave a message to him?

Rosie’s voice, a pure contralto, spoke in his memory, Live for today, don’t worry about tomorrow. That’s what it means; Horace said it often. Good advice, my love.

Yet the words on the stone held a more vengeful meaning. Had they hoped some higher power would avenge them? Kill the monster whose folly allowed their daughter to die? When they heard of his death, had they felt peace, grateful for answered prayers?

“Mr. Ollre, we should go,” Hollis Rucker called from the limo. His footsteps approached.  “Come away, Otto,” the man whispered at his side. Two of the tentacles rose to menace him if he came too close but he ignored them.

Frozen by grief, he could not have gotten up from the sodden grass without aid but the lawyer didn’t try to touch him. The mechanical limbs moved him, setting him back on his boots. When he stumbled, they held him up, leaving deep gashes in the grass and muddy earth from the grave to the waiting car.

He brought so much of the storm in with him that the limo was reduced from a luxury to a mere conveyance.

Physical pain slowly surfaced out of the emotional and mental fog. He was leaning back against the metal spine that had fused his extra limbs to his body, putting pressure on the double row of needles that were tangled with his human spine. The flesh around his rib cage ached under the thick belt of the tentacles’ harness and a dark discoloration of bruises haloed the skin around the metal.

The car’s heater blasted his bare chest under the long brown coat but his face turned away from it. He watched the water wash down the windows as they left the cemetery and headed back to the helicopter.

Rucker took a small glass bottle and a syringe out of a first aid kit beside him. The snap of the kit caught Otto’s attention and he turned his head to watch as the man leaned forward and prepared the injection.

Offering his left arm wordlessly, Otto kept the tentacles still as Rucker opened a custom flap in the coat sleeve and slipped the needle expertly into a vein. The morphine hit his system quickly and drove all the pain from his body but it couldn’t carve the anguish from his mind.

He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, his fingertips pressing against his eyelids. The grit on them from the tombstone rasped silently against the thin, tender skin.