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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.

Chapter Text

The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth, and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton
Stiff and white
A broken spring in a factory yard
Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left
Hard and curled and ready to snap

~ Lines from Rhapsody on a Windy Night (T.S. Elliot)

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

Wreathed in cigar smoke, Otto sat in thought. His forearms rested on the back of the wooden chair which he had turned backward and straddled.

He watched the monitor that showed him the company board members shifting nervously in their seats three floors below him. The camera was angled just to the left of Rucker’s head but Otto didn’t bother to change the view to include his major-domo’s face. His focus was on the man in the Hong Kong version of an Armani suit.

“We’re waiting, Mr. Sanders,” Rucker drawled.

The man glanced nervously at the camera and away again. “There isn’t anything like tritium in China. I searched in and out of the law. There’s nothing. I’m sorry sir.”

A woman in a navy Givenchy suit, a real one, stared up at the camera. She spoke without any hint of fear. “That’s all possible locations hunted to the ends of the earth, sir.”

Otto smiled. If she could have seen it, she might have paled. “So it seems, Ms. Archer, and yet we still need a fuel source compatible with my formula.”

“Sir,” she answered, her chin lifting slightly, “the minerals harvested now could have limitless potential. The search hasn’t been a total loss.”

“No, indeed. Proceed with evaluations of their properties and possible applications. Oversee the effort yourself, Ms. Archer. I will expect a preliminary report in three days.”

“Yes, sir.”

Switching the camera view at last, Otto watched as Rucker rose, his fingertips on the polished mahogany conference table as his flint gray eyes scanned the faces around him.

“That will be all, I believe, unless Mr. Ollre has any further instructions – sir?”

“No. Carry on – and good day.”

Otto removed the stub of cigar from his mouth and crushed it violently into a heavy glass ashtray on his desk. He rose too quickly, overturning the chair.

After the clatter of it faded, the silence of the empty penthouse surrounded him, half plunged into darkness between the sparse security lights.

He closed his eyes for a moment, hands knotted into fists, before switching off the monitor and sweeping out of the room.

~ ~ ~

The chill of the subterranean bedroom made him shudder but he didn’t wake. The mechanical arms stirred slightly, suspicious, but then slowly went still again.

In his mind, Rosalie Octavius watched him with pride. Tragedy waited, moments away – the accident, the glass – but he couldn’t forsake her. Seeing her die every night tore at his soul but it was the only way to see her alive.

Otto turned to face her as he always did and stared around him in shock. The old lab of steel and glass had faded. His wife stood on a hillside surrounded by heather, breathing the fragrant air. She smiled her welcome. The lab coat was gone. In its place, a diaphanous cream gown fell from her shoulders. Her beauty stole his breath.

Otto reached out a hand to her but when her fingers touched his, he startled. The tentacles rose to watch her, mouths slightly open. Did they understand? She came close and they wreathed around her as he drew her into his arms.

Fingertips caressing her cheek, he looked down into her bright hazel eyes.

Rosie, how?

You needed me.

It can’t be real. You’re gone. The glass – I killed you.

I forgive you.

An expression of wonder came over her face as she took in the tentacles. When they moved, one of them opening its mouth behind her with a mechanical hiss, the expression turned to fear.

They won’t hurt you. I’m … bonded to them now; they’ve changed me...

Her fingers brushed the thick hair from his forehead. You look the same to me.

His arms crushed her to him, a soft sound of pain escaping his lips as they lowered gently to hers.

My God, Rosalie… I’m so sorry – but I love you … beyond death.

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

Rooke’s mind reeled as the man kissed the psychic mask she wore. She didn’t need Chuck Xavier to tell her the simulacrum of the woman was all that kept her from being attacked and driven out of his mind. She would have to be careful.

The sight of the four monstrous things, obviously the other sentient beings, shocked her. She had thought he might suffer from multiple personalities but the truth was stunning.

She knew who he was – had heard of him. The press had dubbed him ‘Doctor Octopus’, a title that needed no explanation. How many times, as she lay in her hospital bed in New York City, had she listened to other thoughts as they trembled in fear of this man?

Rooke smiled. She didn’t care which side of the law he was on. He’d been against Spider-Man, and that was good enough for her. The X-Men, the web-slinger, and the man she hated beyond anything else – Magneto – it was their fault that her life had been ruined.

Cold metal stroked her side and with a guilty pang she focused again on where she was. One of his metal arms was caressing her body with its dog-like muzzle.

Kinky. Does he realize it?

Turning her concentration on the Doc, she was amazed at the strong undercurrent of emotion his mind was bathing her in. Yet she couldn’t touch it or feel it directly while keeping her own mind safely independent of his.

Curiosity and temptation twined inside her. She wanted to experience the things that passed around her psychic image like mist. What had Xavier said? Names – names were the magic word. Hunting through her stolen memories, she found it.

Otto, her mind whispered to his, the slightest fear riding her thoughts. I have missed you...

She gasped when he responded, his powerful mind pulling her into its influence. In a flash, it was all there – the love, remorse, and starved desire – in stark and drowning sensations.

Don’t be afraid, he told her, his lips at her neck, just under her left ear.

Large strong hands held her arms gently but the hunger he felt for the image she wore seemed palpable through the touch.

Oh, my God...

Rooke had been with many men since her patron mutant saint had given her back the use of her body. Sex and desire in the physical realm had always paled in comparison to the intimacies she could spy on between others. Yet this man’s need overwhelmed her, even as it sparked and burned her, mentally and physically. The love he felt just from seeing and touching this woman was beyond the bounds of anything she had ever known.

Rosalie … I don’t understand. I’ve never been able to touch you, to remove you from – what happened. How?

Watch it, she thought, without broadcasting it to him. If he senses you, you’re entangled enough to get damaged. Unhook, back off. This is getting dangerous.

Carefully, she retreated from the fire, slipping back behind the wall of the illusion she wore.

It’s a gift, she told him. I can’t remain long but I wanted to tell you – I forgive you, and I love you. Remember... She stepped back, ghosting out of his grasp.

To listen to Horace, Rosie? I can’t – if I live for today, I won’t have you.

His human arms were raised, palms up in a mute appeal. The mechanical arms were ranged around him, two over his head and two poised at his shoulders. They seemed to bristle with growing mistrust, their mouths pulling open as if baring unseen fangs.

The man’s attempt to keep her there with an intense will, even as the machines hissed, confused and frightened her. She escaped, breaking the connection with a yank.

Opening her eyes, she stared into the blackness of the echoing warehouse she had broken into for the night. The couch in the office, a rusting jumble of threadbare cloth and cracked vinyl, dug into her back but she didn’t move.

“That was close,” she muttered. “Freak almost held me hostage.” Her right hand slid down to cup her denim crotch, pressing damp cotton panties against hungry flesh. “Shit. Ock, you are one loaded motherfucker. The Daily Bugle never had a scoop on that!” She grinned in the dark and tried to relax. “That wasn’t for me, though. Rosie, whoever you are, you’re one lucky wench, even if you are mincemeat.”

Unable to sleep, she gave in to her body. Stripping off her leather glove and opening her jeans, she touched herself languidly. Calling up the psychic memory of him, she imagined the sensuous lips on hers, her fingers in his thick brunette hair.

She could forgive him his age, what, twenty-four, or more, years her senior? She could even forgive the bowl haircut. His broad-shouldered heavy frame and sculpted pecs would have gotten him a ticket in anyway, had she met him on the street. No doubt about it, the mind was a turn-on, mad as he was, and those metal things!

Damn. With a giggle, she drew them into her autoerotic fantasy. Could he make one of them…? Why not?

The imagery altered as she smiled. Yet sex with the heavy cold muzzle, as delightfully wicked as it was, didn’t compare to what she had felt in his mind, in his arms, and mouth. Even with the barrier of clothes between them.

That heat had been alien to her. It was – pure? Rooke shook her head. She didn’t know what to call it. How could the things she’d felt him desiring be pure? Men were beasts. They saw, they screwed, and they left. Besides, it was just a kiss.

So how come that kiss was better than any screw you’ve ever had? She frowned. The kinky elements faded from her mind until the tentacles themselves were out of focus. Bring forward the man – that kiss. If I’d stayed, Ock, what could you have done to me? Her fingers resumed, quickening their motions slightly. “Come on, old man, do it,” she urged under her breath. “Oh, shit yeah...”

Her orgasm hit her forcefully, her body twitching under the cold touch of her fingers. The exhaustion she’d been fighting all day crept over her as the release relaxed her. Eyes drifting shut, she dropped off to sleep.

~ ~ ~

It was the tank, not the hospital that came to torment her. She breathed alien fluid as the living metal sliced into her skin like a devouring insect, wrapped around her bones, and branched out through paralyzed muscle and dead nerves. Erupting out of her flesh again, it forced wounds closed, spreading out over the surface of her body in patterns and whirls of nanotech lace.

Lights grew on filaments out of her spine, and over the left side of her chest. Metal pads opened on her fingertips, their sensory enhancements amazing, but the birth of the diamond-hard retractable talons had torn her with agony.

Spiral had promised she would walk again but there would be a price – and there would be pain. After four years in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the neck down, the promise was all she could see.

When the torture of her cure had been at its worst, she might have turned back, but the choice was no longer hers. As the dream slithered toward that apex, she abruptly focused and forced it to change, with a jolt of her own dream-spinning power – her most honed mutant talent.

The hospital bed swallowed her but she didn’t mind now. It was an empty threat and if she allowed the dream to open here, maybe she could bring her parents into it.

Memories of all the minds she had ridden in secret – borrowing their bodies, their freedom, and their lives – crowded around her: New York minds and Chicago minds, after her parents brought her here … all familiar, comforting. They had kept her sane in the prison of her own mind.

Yet somewhere, on the edge of dreaming, she still felt the strange and tempting sensations of her telepathic encounter. Unbidden, a yearning to feel it again, to understand it, was born. It became so strong that it drove her awake.

Rooke sat up and hid her face in her hands. “Can’t play with that, girl,” she whispered. She didn’t doubt the wisdom of it but the urge to connect with him again didn’t fade.

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

Otto had woken in a cold sweat with four agitated machines coiling around his body. The dream had toppled his tenuous hold on sanity, calling up things he hadn’t allowed himself to feel in years – since her death.

He stumbled from the bed in a daze and if the arms hadn’t wrapped him in a robe, he’d have entered the penthouse nude.

Indulging in a scalding shower, bombarded by six powerful jets around the large black-tiled room, he felt his rational mind start to reassert itself. The tentacles dried him and themselves with thick towels and helped him into a fresh robe, split up the back as all of his clothing had to be.

Otto retired to a padded heavy stool that stood in front of the windows. It had wide padded arms, but no back. Two of the tentacles lent him back support, their mouths opening into three-fingered prehensile appendages. The other two angled themselves to watch him, all four minds muttering in confusion at once. He ignored them all and watched the lights of the sleeping city.

What had changed? How was I able to alter the dream, to touch her? A gift, she’d said.

The words of love and forgiveness washed over him again, soothing his splintered mind, even as the memory of touching her set his body on fire again.

A soft sound made him turn, though his sentinels had already shown him Balfour behind him, standing under the arch that led into the hall.

Otto signed to him with practiced hands that all was well. “But I could use a whiskey,” he said, signing the request as he said it.

Balfour nodded and disappeared. When he returned, he had the drink and one of the expensive Arturo Fuente Opus X cigars Rucker always brought. The Macassar Ebony humidor box had set the lawyer back $30,000.

“Thank you,” he said, with a slight smile, when the young man struck a match for him.

Alone again, he took a drink and let it warm him. The cigar filled the room with a delicious perfume but it couldn’t soothe the confusion and the longing that consumed him.

“I don’t understand,” he whispered to the silent city.

Many things about the dream made no sense. Subtle details, while pleasant, had been out of place. The nightgown: Rosalie had never been fond of the color cream and neither had he. If the mind tended to conjure the familiar, why had they met on a hill covered in heather? His heritage was German, Rosalie’s Italian. The Scottish Highlands were foreign territory to them both.

His habitual restlessness grew, aided by the chattering of his perpetual companions. A dangerous urge to go out plucked at him but was it their idea or his own cabin fever? It had been almost a year since he’d last left his sanctuary alone, without the trappings of the wealthy recluse to hide what he was.

“If we were seen...  The risk isn’t worth it,” he told them.

It invaded us. / Not Her. / Another, another! / Should have attacked it!

“No!” His lips peeled back from even white teeth in a grimace that had terrified many. “None of you knew her! You will not harm her, ever!”

Not Her. / Another! / Go! Go and see! / It will seek us out! Kill it!

“Damn you to Hell, you will not touch her!”

He dropped the whiskey, the glass shattering on the floor. The cigar was crushed in his fist, broken in two. It missed falling into the spilled alcohol by inches and slowly smoldered, scorching the wood.

Rising, he staggered to the window, his fingers digging into his hair in anguish. Resting his forehead against the cold glass, he breathed raggedly, struggling to regain control. The others were silent as they watched, ready to steady him, help him – and drive him to murder again.

“She is dead. Dead. My Rosie is dead. You can’t hurt her.”

Their voices, speaking all at once again, attempted to be more soothing, persuading. We know Her. / We saw Her. / This one is not She you want. / This one invaded our mind...

Otto opened his eyes, his fingers sliding down his face. He reached out to touch the glass and the expression of pure insanity reflected there. “Invaded?”

Yesyesyesyes...

He moved them, striking the floor with resounding blows, and went down the hall to the large formal dressing room. His servant, always frightened when he showed his anger, was none-the-less waiting to help him dress.

Balfour settled the heavy brown trench coat on Otto’s shoulders over thick winter clothing and backed away again, going to lean his back against a wall far from the doorway.

“Where?” Otto demanded in response to the machines.

Go. / Think of Her, it can hear us! / Find it. Kill it! / Draw it out...

The elevator took him to the roof. He stepped out into the frigid air and biting wind of October. It spread his coat out like a cloak as he leapt over the side of the building, trusting to the urging, murderous creatures to grip the rugged protruding stones of the architecture and swing him down to the street sixteen hundred feet below.

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

It took a lot of fancy mental footwork to get past security at the University of Illinois Science Library but after convincing him she was his partner back from her rounds, Rooke slipped away with her flashlight and started browsing. The flashlight, lifted from the partner she’d left snoring in the parking lot, was a heavy foot-long Maglite.

When she located a bank of computers, she set the flashlight down on the table and fired up the last machine in the back row. Sleep had eluded her, so she sought knowledge. Drawing on the memories of a businessman from Manhattan, she operated the equipment and software like a pro.

Okay, Ock, let’s get you Googled and see what you’re all about.

She ignored the Daily Bugle matches and opened a few of the others. Coming across a site with pictures of him pre-freakdom, she was surprised to discover that his first career hadn’t involved flinging cars at wall-crawlers.

Atomic research. What the fuck? Hey – score! Otto Gunther Octavius. Jawohl, dude.

On the thickest site she found, written in a scientific language she dubbed New American Geek, a man named Connor went on and on about Ock and his grand experiment gone wrong and claimed to know him personally.

Frat buddies? Do you guys even know what beer tastes like?

She clicked on a photo thumbnail and a large color portrait of the smiling scientist opened up. His eyes were dark, a deep brown, the face defined by a strong jaw and solid square chin. The man looked more like a construction grunt than a geek. Didn’t scientists eat quiche and walk around like sticks, forgetting to speak plain English?

Leaving that photo up, she found one of the Daily Bugle snapshots and opened it beside the other to compare.

His feet weren’t touching the ground. Two of the metal arms were pretending to be legs, as the other two lugged huge bank bags of gold. The safe door behind him had been ripped from its hinges and locks and tossed like a Frisbee.

Damn, old man. That’s the way to go. Screw scraping and scrounging – just rip the shit off and take, take, take! Gotta admit, I like your style.

Rooke printed out both photos and turned off the machine, folding the sheets of paper in quarters and slipping them into a pocket of her jacket. She picked up the flashlight and headed out.

Sick of roach motels and run-down buildings, she thought about trying to put the whammy on a doorman at one of the big hotels. A businessman staying in one would be easier but there wouldn’t be many of them up after one in the morning. Sighing, she walked off out of the 800 block of West Taylor Street.

A memory from an unusual mind struck her casual telepathic scans, a random catch – but the mental signature was familiar after obsessing about it all night. Plus, multiples not being that common, it could only be him.

“Where are you, Otto Gunther Octavius? Not taking a dirt nap like you should be – or a Hudson nap, I guess. What’s the story, fish bait?” She smiled. He probably had some dank basement den somewhere. Was he sitting in it now, brooding over whatever failed criminal scientists brood over?

She focused on the signature and followed it telepathically, without contacting him. The memory was of the woman, of course – his beloved mincemeat. She wasn’t surprised. Didn’t men always obsess over what they couldn’t have?

Rooke tucked the flashlight into her jeans waistband to climb a fence and enter an alley. It would take her back to her warehouse, and then she could concentrate on the Doc better.

It’d be sweet if I could snoop you out, Ock. We could go for coffee and chat about the fun of being cyborgs. Just for starters, of course. Eventually, I’d have to see what a doctorate does for a man’s plumbing.

She stepped up onto the raised cement base of a streetlight to get a view down the alley. As she slipped an arm around the pole, her motion sensors went crazy.

“What the –”

A heavy object struck her and knocked her across the alley where she landed in a crumpled heap. Gears whined and screamed in her ears. Something was broken but she didn’t worry about it. Spiral had said the cybernetics would repair themselves and they’d never let her down. By the time she regained her feet, the damage was fixed. Hatred stiffening her delicate features, she glared up at her attacker.

“You!” Rooke stepped back a pace.

He was huge. The human body had to be over six feet tall, but the tentacles held him ten feet over the street. The one that had hit her across the ribs was coiling with an inhuman menace. The other was open and shining a light down on her.

“How did you find us?” His voice was angry, insane.

“You screamed – in your mind. I’m a telepath, I followed it.”

“And toyed with us!” The powerful tentacles set him on his feet and struck out at her, all too fast for her to react.

The blows smashed at her but the flesh wouldn’t bruise and the metal just rewove itself, fixing any damaged components as it went. She rolled out of a fall and landed on her side, panting. Sparks flew from her back before the rent closed.

Rooke started to get up. “Had to trash the jacket, huh?”

He froze in the act of striking again. “What are you?”

She ran her hand under her nose, wiping away a dark liquid. “Mutant. Deluxe Limited Edition. Want to stop playing ‘Hulk smash’ and talk like civilized monsters?” He was silent but didn’t attack again. Rooke picked up her fallen Maglite, slapping it in her gloved palm.

“We can’t allow you to tell others about us. I’m sorry.” All four mouths around his head hissed open and spikes as long as her flashlight popped out of them.

“Wait a minute! I won’t blow your cover, old man. I just wanted to know about you. I’m not going to turn you in. I don’t get on with cops.”

She stuck the flashlight back in her waistband and began stripping off her leather gloves. Holding them in one hand, she held up the other, palm out. The black stone that pulsed in its center flashed in the streetlight. Her fingers capped in metal, she popped the diamond claws.

“See?” she told him. “We have a lot in common. So whattaya say? Call truce, play nice? I’m dying to talk to you.”

“You’re a cyborg.”

“Don’t miss a trick, do you?”

“It was you in my dream – you changed it. How?”

“I manipulate dreams. Mix in the telepathy and there’s a lot I can do – but I can’t explain how. There was a man in Westchester named Professor Xavier who offered to teach me but I didn’t like his rules … or his cause.” She lowered her hand and stared at the palm. “I didn’t want to upset you. I was trying to help.”

“The metal in your body, what is it?”

“Hell if I know.”

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

Otto lunged – to capture, not attack – but she avoided the grab of the tentacle’s interior coil and backed away. “You wanted to talk. Come along then,” he taunted.

“Really not looking to play Fay Wray to your Kong, sorry. Sure we can’t just find an open bar?”

He smiled. “I’m afraid I’m not dressed for it.”

She began backing away from him toward a wooden fence. The amazing metal showed on her forehead, chest, and threaded through the arms and hands. What portion of her that was human was barely more than a child, in spite of the hunted look of her expression. Pure anomaly, she fascinated him.

Otto watched as she turned and punched through the fence, kicking a hole big enough for her slight body to slip through. He didn’t try to catch her again and when she paused, he noticed the trickle of black fluid on her lip.

“Who made you?” he asked.

“Mr. and Mrs. Dryden, both deceased,” she replied with a glare.

“Perhaps I could talk with you – but it would have to be in the privacy of my home. If you think you can trust me.”

“I doubt it … but maybe.”

“Do you know the Octagon building?”

“Who in the Windy City doesn’t?”

“Come tomorrow if you like. Security is rather stringent but I’ll have them on the lookout to let you in.” He smiled. “If I may have your name? I suspect you know mine.”

“Rooke. Wait a minute – it’s you!”

He was lifted into the air, the tentacles gripping the brick wall behind him, ready to carry him home. They were seething in his mind. “What is me?”

“That mystery guy, the genius.” She shook her head and grinned. “Good job on the identity overhaul.”

~ ~ ~

Rucker was shocked to hear that he was hoping to have a guest. “Can she be trusted?”

“Probably not – but she knows who I am.” Otto watched him slide the needle into the vein of his bare arm. “I went to kill her, until I saw her.”

“Let me take care of it.”

“No. She isn’t to be harmed. She’s – unique. You’ll understand when you see her. Just send her up to Balfour, if she has the courage to show up.”

“Fine.” He gathered the kit and rose. “You’re probably rich enough now to sail over most indiscretions, Otto. Yet I must insist – if you want someone removed, tell me. Going out is dangerous. If you’re discovered, we’ll have the spandex union down our throats. Those people have proven very resistant to bribes, not to mention the less fiscal methods of silencing a threat.”

When he left, Otto sat on his stool before the wall of glass and watched the day lighten.

Foolish. / Why trust? / Why? / The man is right – to kill is best.

“Whatever her crimes, I must inspect that metal. It moved – repaired itself. What if it could be what we need?”

Once it’s / dead, the metal / is ours / yes?

Otto was silent. He rose and went to dress for his company. Balfour had his instructions and Rucker had no doubt already informed the kitchens.

Standing in front of the three-way full-length mirror in his pants and bare feet, he stared at the bruising around the harness belt. The pain of it had melted into a pleasant haze.

Deep inside, the original nanotech wire probes were fused in a tangled mess around his vertebrae and into his spinal cord. Fingers felt for the bare end of the artificial spine at the nape of his neck. He had removed the burned out inhibitor chip long ago, after it had failed to keep his mind protected.

His hair was reaching into his eyes. The memory of Rosalie teasing him about it stabbed at him, as did the realization that her words of forgiveness had been nothing but the foolish taunts of a child. She had played with him, cruelly seeming to offer his heart’s desire and then dissolving it like mist. What was the point of such a game?

Remembering the fire of the kiss, crushing his wife to his chest, and the burning need reborn – his fists clenched.

It distracts / you don’t / listen. / The work waits...

“I can’t live without her.”

She wanted this. / For us. / For all. / We must.

His hand rose and covered his eyes, blocking the sight of them in the mirrors. “I know.”

Chapter Text

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

~ Lines from The Tiger (William Blake)

You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day
In a vision, or in none
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep
While I weep - while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?

~ Lines from A Dream Within a Dream (Edgar Allan Poe)

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

He had fallen asleep in the Water Room, lulled by the sight of the wind on the lake and the sound of the fountain that ran in intricate patterns down the interior wall. Between the fountain and the windows, a stout low divan sprawled, taking up most of the room.  Otto was stretched out in the center of it, unconcerned about wrinkling his suit pants and white linen shirt.

The gentlest touch on his shoulder woke him. Balfour stood there, nervous, but dutiful.

The tentacles helped him sit up. “Is Ms. Dryden here?” he asked, hands moving to make the question understood. The man nodded. “I assume Mr. Rucker has gone to meet her?” Another nod.

Otto stood and looked out the window over the expanse of Lake Michigan. He preferred the west side windows that showed the city but the water was soothing. Rosie would have loved this room.

Why had he never thought to do this before? Bypass the need for investors, especially spoiled and vengeful young men without wit enough to understand what his work could mean? He used his intellect for the good of mankind, yes – but a byproduct of that effort was wealth.

Yet Rosie never cared for that. She loved our life and home as it was.

As he left the room and entered the front foyer where the elevator doors waited, he heard Tchaikovsky playing softly in the dining room – and into this serene beauty, the elevator deposited a creature of leather, piercings, and body art.

The girl hung back until Rucker stepped out and ushered her into the foyer with him. She wore pink-tinted plastic sunglasses, and continually cracked her gum. Her gloves were on, as was the scarf, but the jacket had been traded for a black leather duster which was buttoned over her heavy boots.

She stared at him, and then at their surroundings, in shock. “Saw this building on the Science Channel. They didn’t say anything about this.”

“Welcome.” Otto smiled. “Balfour will have lunch for us in half an hour. Would you like a drink?”

“I’m underage, you know. You’d be breaking the law.” Her lips stretched in a smirk.

“I’ve broken a lot worse.” He led her to the western city side and watched as she gaped at the view. “Whiskey? Wine?”

“Screwdriver, neat.” She kept back from the window, and turned in time to see him signing her request to his servant. “He’s deaf?”

“Yes, and mute.”

“So no one can hear me scream later, once the stiff leaves?”

Otto glanced at Rucker and said, “He doesn’t trust you.” The lawyer and president didn’t comment. He stood under the arch and glowered at the girl. Otto added with a raised eyebrow, “He is also a busy man.”

Rucker turned his glare on Otto before he left, sweeping past Balfour as he brought their drinks, and went back to work. In moments, they were alone.

The girl watched him with a wary steely gaze, sipping her drink with the same practiced ease with which she’d used the slang terms to order it.

She pulled the scarf from her neck and draped it over the plush dark leather couch against the wall. Silver lines that might be mistaken for a thin lace necklace wove in patterns around the skin of her neck. The rectangular patch of metal on her forehead appeared to be some sort of micro machinery and must have been harder to pass off as jewelry – or anything else.

Keeping a tight hold on the other voices in his head, he took his whiskey to the stool and sat down.

His guest unbuttoned her coat and slipped it off, dropping it over the scarf before perching on the edge of the couch.

“Hell of a bachelor pad, Doc.”

Otto ignored the comment. “I’d very much like to know why you chose to masquerade as my wife last night.”

“I thought you wanted to talk hardware.”

“Next order of business. Answer me.”

“I told you. I was trying to help.”

Toying with her glass, she rolled it between her gloved hands. The gloves stopped at her wrists and the silver and gray metal showed in thick cords up her arms. Patterns of a black metal disappeared into the sleeves of her t-shirt. The pants were skin-tight leather, laced up the outside. Through the laces, more metal was visible.

“I don’t recall asking for your help.”

“Still needed it, though. You’re a mess, Doc.”

“You should know this now – if you are caught in my mind again, I will do my best to kill you in a way that allows me to study your enhancements undamaged.”

“Guess I’ll have to avoid getting caught, then.” She took a drink and then stared openly at the tentacles. Three of them were watching her as the other remained firmly placed on the floor behind him. “I don’t think they like me.”

“They are telling me to kill you,” he said with a calm and casual tone. “They don’t share my curiosity about your condition.”

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

The tentacles were about five inches thick and appeared to be six feet long at the moment, though Rooke had seen them telescoping past twenty feet the night before. They were black with a line of yellow along the ridged edges. The design was obviously utilitarian, meant for some specific function – but the sentience gave them a sinister look. The same could be said of their master. Or were they the masters?

“There’s a mutant, looks like she fell off your family tree, except all of her arms are human. She took pity on me – or maybe I was just an interesting experiment. Either way, she offered to fix me. I’d been paralyzed since I was eleven and ready to try anything.” She looked away from him. “Spiral kept her word. She made me walk again and a lot more besides but I can’t tell you how she did it, what she used, anything. It works – that’s all I know.”

“Can you contact this person?”

“Sometimes she can hear you if you say her name – but she’s never answered me. I’m finished product, old news. Plus, she isn’t exactly a local girl.” She sighed at his questioning look. “Spiral’s a dimension-hopper and this one isn’t her home territory.”

“I see – an uncommon problem. You have limited knowledge of your condition, then ... little idea of what you’re capable of?”

“I know a lot about it, from experience. It repairs itself and makes me pretty hard to damage for long. It gives me abilities to sense motion around me, too.”

“Was that function in peak condition last night?” His smile wasn’t nice.

“I sensed you coming fine. Just didn’t move quick enough. How fast are those things, anyway?”

“Ninety feet per second.” Her host rose. “Lunch is ready.”

Rooke watched him move, fascinated. The tentacles lifted around him as he went down the hall. He seemed solid enough. Why did they often help him walk?

In the formal dining room, Rooke was caught between ecstasy over the food and a self-conscious fear that she was committing massive improprieties with her lack of table manners. She wasn’t sure how many of the forks she was expected to use, so she worked through them all.

He studied her throughout the meal but she knew it was the cybernetics that held his attention. It made her feel like a talking doll. Once, she tried to slip a telepathic probe into his thoughts but it struck a barrier and shattered. His expression never changed. Had he noticed?

After lunch, she was shown what he called the Water Room. Stunned, she couldn’t comment.

“We would like the opportunity to study this alloy. Painlessly, of course. You’d be welcome to stay here.”

“Long enough for you to figure out whether or not it’s worth it to peel me? What do I get out of this?”

“You might learn much more about the nature and abilities of your enhancements, as well as the ramifications of the symbiotic bonding.”

Rooke blinked at him. “Speak English.”

“I can tell you what it may be doing to you and what it’s capable of doing for you.”

“Oh.”

She didn’t know about that. Odds were, he’d take the first opportunity to strap her to a chair and yank it all out for some creepy experiment of his own.

Looking out over the lake and around the room, a slow smile spread on her lips.

Can I do better than this? Still, the risk has to have more compensations than just a five-star vacation with Dr. Frankenstein. “Would you answer my questions? About you?”

“Depending on the questions.”

Rooke watched him closely. “I shouldn’t trust you farther than I could throw you – and that’s farther than you might think, Doc.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

She let her eyes travel down his body and back up to his handsome cold face. It could be fun. “Hell with it. Count me in.”

“If you require anything, write it down for Balfour. You may sleep here.”

“Where’s your room?”

“On a lower level and far less appealing. Now if you’re satisfied that I don’t plan to murder you outright, I will show you the lab and get started on some preliminary tests.”

~ ~ ~

The lab was distinctly over her head. She recognized the computer but the rest of the equipment was unknown. The confusing tangle of hardware sprawled through most of the sub-basement level, with the exception of a small bedroom she had noticed to the right of the elevator and an impressive wine cellar to the left.

Rooke was sitting in a chair next to a mind-boggling machine, with electrodes taped to her temples and over her heart. Her coat, scarf and gloves had been left upstairs. Ock was fiddling with dials and supposedly reading the data that had flooded the display screen.

“What do I call you?” she asked.

“Dr. Octavius will suffice.”

“Too long. I’d forget my question half-way through. I’ll just call you ‘Doc’.” She smirked at his frown. “So, Doc – am I human?”

“This metal has infiltrated your brain. Somehow, it entered without causing massive trauma and stimulated your spinal cord and cerebellum, bypassing damage to both rather than fixing it, and allowing them not only to operate but to function more efficiently. I assume it is behaving in a similar manner in limbs and digits, allowing you full restoration of movement. I am not a medical doctor or a neurologist, but the theory is certainly born out by your abilities.” He picked up her hand, inspected the black stone in the palm, and then turned it over, releasing it. “Move your fingers?” She did. “Can you perform delicate finger movements without difficulty?”

Rooke grinned. “Yep. Some of ‘em to grand effect.”

He ignored her attempt at ribald humor. “Then the basal ganglia must be affected as well.”

“The who?”

“I’m inclined to borrow the local hospital’s MRI. Unfortunately, I can’t borrow a neurologist. Perhaps I should hire one.” His fingers touched her left temple. “Did you experience any deterioration in homo-superior ability after the procedure?”

“Doc, I’m getting tired of saying ‘huh’. What the hell are you asking me?”

“Your mutant talents – did they weaken afterward?”

“I don’t know. My telepathy is weaker than the dream-spinning but I didn’t use it as much once I could walk around, anyway.”

“From what I know of such abilities, I believe this fascinating metal is probably suppressing them considerably.”

“Not a problem. It’s enough to get by and I’m happier walking.”

He picked up her hands again and turned them palm up. “What caused the scarring?”

Rooke stared at the criss-crossing ugly stitches of scar tissue across her wrists. “Some days I’m less happy.”

~ ~ ~

She sat watching the moonlit waters of the lake. Since most of what he’d said all day hadn’t made sense to her, she had occupied herself with studying him and his metal assistants. Watching them operate machines around them and hand him tools had fascinated her.

Their hostility had slacked off, too. Had he told them to leave her be? She could feel their thoughts now and then, if he was busy with other things. The closest guess she had on their new attitude was curiosity.

Ock stood by the glass but his eyes were on her. “I need a sample to test its mineral components.”

Rooke ignored the question and asked her own. “Could those things have killed Spider-Man?”

“I never got the chance to find out.”

“Can they be cut?”

“The tentacles, spine, and harness are titanium coated with Adamantium. I haven’t attempted to put them to such a test but in theory, nothing can cut Adamantium. They are impervious to heat and magnetism. Submersion in water isn’t good for them, though they have proved able to survive in it, long enough – as well as enduring electrical shock.”

“Magnetism, huh?”

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

The girl’s image invaded his dreams but he didn’t know if it was a natural dream or her first defiance of his threat. She made no attempt to masquerade as his wife and the flow of the images followed the day’s events without much embellishment.

Otto woke in the morning feeling a vague longing. He knew the dream of Rosalie wasn’t real but it had felt real enough. He lay in bed and called to mind a hundred memories of their fifteen year marriage. Her laughter, the way the sun could turn her brunette hair chestnut, and the melting expression of love that would come over her when he regaled others with the tale of how they’d met. His mind slowly filled with her voice reading Horace, Elliot, or Thoreau, trying to explain the intricacies of each.

A stanza from Charlotte Brontë’s poem about the death of her sister slid into his thoughts. ‘There’s little joy in life for me, and little terror in the grave; I’ve lived the parting hour to see of one I would have died to save.’

In the past two years, he had come to understand that poem very well – but the minds that drove him on hadn’t allowed him to die. Not in the river, when he’d destroyed his reactor, and not in the weeks that followed when he had sought death more than once, unable to imagine how to live without his wife.

Yet when he’d touched Rosie in the dream – believing she had come to absolve him, to give him solace – he had felt truly alive again. If only he could still believe it had been real.

~ ~ ~

Rooke stood by his chair as he dealt with his board members that morning. He wondered how much of the meeting she understood. It didn’t matter, of course – she already knew the only secret he cared to keep.

Mr. Fung had the floor. “Cyberkinetic Neurotech has requested our help in modifying the silicon chip for their neural interface system. Did you want to take that on, sir?”

“This is the interface allowing quadriplegics to use computers via brain power, correct?”

“Yes, Mr. Ollre.”

Otto turned to Rooke. “A worthy cause?”

“Sure,” she answered, sounding mystified.

“Proceed,” he said to the microphone in front of the monitor. “Get Harris on it initially and I will look it over myself later in the week.”

“Yes, sir.” He sorted through his notes.

“In addition, Mr. Fung, ask our friends at Cyberkinetic if they can recommend a competent neurologist for our in-house medical staff. Khan Ng should know them all by now and I trust his judgment. Thinking of that, requisition an MRI for our doctors.”

Several faces looked curious but no one questioned him.

“I’ll get right on it, Mr. Ollre.” He pulled another sheet from his notes. “There’s only one more piece of new business. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital needs assistance in designing a smaller imaging unit for their fMRI, and they wanted to ask you about a higher magnetic field strength – for the 3 Tesla scanner.”

“Certainly. That I will see to personally. Please convey the message to Dr. Krone that he should give me a month and then contact me for a progress update. It should be well in hand by then. If that is all, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll leave you to it.”

“Thank you, sir,” Fung answered.

Rucker had been silent through most of the meeting. No doubt he’d have to reassure the man more than once that his guest wasn’t a threat to the company.

“What’s an fMRI?” Rooke asked as he was turning off the monitor.

“Functional magnetic resonance imaging.”

“Which, translated, means...”

Otto smiled. “Dr. Krone is using magnetic fields to take high resolution images of areas of the brain, to aid in a genius surgical removal of previously inoperable tumors. The images map nerve fibers and allow him to determine if an operation is safe to attempt when a high risk of permanent paralysis is present. His blend of radiological technology and surgical techniques will potentially be able to save thousands of lives.”

“So you’re helping for the heck of it? What, no all-consuming plot to take over the world keeping you busy?”

“Power is useful only as it serves one’s needs. In this place, I have enough of it to suit mine. More would threaten my anonymity, which would undoubtedly threaten my life. As for helping people like Mr. Ng and Dr. Krone, they can afford the services of this company and the work they do is worthwhile.”

She frowned. “I never had Alpha class talent but if I did, I’d at least want to own Australia or something.”

Otto faced her with his hands on his knees. “You seem possessed of a native intelligence. Perhaps you can understand that all I’ve ever wanted was to improve the lot of the world, not own it.”

“Sure, I get that – but my fifth grade education got severed by one of the brand name baddies on a ‘my way or the highway’ kick. Telepathy and snitched knowledge enable me to pretend I know anything. Ever since I got my body back, I’ve figured the world owes me some payback. It can divvy up in power and cash.”

“I told another young person once that intelligence was a gift, to be used for the good of mankind. Your abilities could be useful in that respect as well.”

“Spare me, Doctor Octopus. Have you looked at your rap sheet lately? Don’t try to play good guy with me. Not after you batted me across an alley just for trying to use my gift to help somebody.”

“Touché. Though I fail to see how you were helping me.”

“I’m no therapist, okay? That quack Xavier said I could help people if I cared to learn how. He talked a lot like you, come to think of it. I expected different from a guy who repeatedly trashed New York trying to swat a bug. Thing is, you’re stuck on that woman’s death. You can’t get past it and it’s eating you up inside. All I wanted to do was let you hear that it was okay, you were forgiven.”

Otto stiffened. “That woman’s name is Rosalie Octavius, whom I have loved longer than you’ve been alive.” He rose and stalked out of the room, tentacles coiled and threatening, reflecting his emotions. “Speak of her with respect or not at all.”

He left her sitting there and went down to the lab. Staring at his unfinished work, his tattered dream, he felt his anger boil away, transforming into a darker and more dangerous mood.

No. / There is / too much / left to do.

“When it’s finished – what then?” His head sank into his hands. “Can we finally be at peace then?”

We do not wish to end. / There is peace, a solace. / Upstairs. / Yes.

Otto opened his eyes and stared around at them. “That child could be our answer to the fuel source. It is the only reason for her presence here – and I think I liked it better when you wanted her dead.”

She can be / what you / want. / She can be Her.

“No.” He shook his head. “You can’t understand – and why the sudden change?”

You changed / and we are affected. / Distraction halts the work. / We find a solution.

“No.”

~ ~ ~

The young woman paced in the lab, watched by one of his metallic arms. Two other arms were helping him set up the ball mill with an Adamantium ball, while he got the Spectrace QuanX ready for a fluorescence scan. The fourth was lending the rest balance, braced firmly on the floor behind his chair.

His guest had waited a long time to come down and seemed more subdued since his outburst. Silence stretched past his last question but as it had been phrased in simple English, he refused to repeat it.

“What did you mean by metal poisoning?”

“Lead and Adamantium, among others, can poison the body.”

“So are your arms poisoning you?”

“No. The portion of the apparatus that has entered my body is nanotech wiring, in the form of needles. It isn’t a danger. Once I’ve determined what your metal consists of, we should know if it could be harmful to you.”

“Not much I can do about it if it is. I’d rather let it kill me slow than go back to vegetating in a hospital bed. Four years of that was enough.”

“How were you injured?”

“Part of a building fell on me and my parents, on a trip to Manhattan. I caught a metal pole with my neck, courtesy of Magneto.”

“It killed your parents?” he asked, as he typed information into the scanner’s computer.

“No. They were fine. They died in Seattle a year ago.”

Otto turned to her. “The sample needn’t be sizable. I intend to crush it to powder, if at all possible. The scanner will do the rest.”

“You got something tough enough to cut it? It fixes itself pretty quick. I don’t fancy having a Philips screwdriver sticking out of my arm.”

One of his tentacles moved in front of her and popped its foot-long Adamantium spike blade. “We have something, yes.”

He held her offered left arm still and let the metal tentacle maneuver its blade in fast triangular cuts. Another tentacle’s fine pincers plucked the sample away before the cybernetics could repair the damage.

She didn’t watch the procedure, her eyes were on his face. Otto didn’t meet her gaze. He studied the movement of the metal, similar to the flow of water, as it brought the cut edges together again to reform the smooth and thick gray band that twined up her inner forearm. When he made her move the limb, it seemed to have suffered no loss of articulation.

“The cutting causes no pain?”

“Nope. Handy for you, huh?” She sat on one of the other stools near him and sighed. “I don’t really feel pain. Sometimes I almost do, but then the metal fixes it. I haven’t seen my own blood in years – just that black stuff.”

“Are you certain that isn’t blood?”

She frowned. “Thanks, Doc. I wasn’t worried enough about being a creature from the Black Lagoon.”

Otto ignored her as he turned to place the small wedge of gray metal into the ball mill. He was surprised that it could be crushed to the preferred size of <25 microns relatively easily. He loaded the powdered sample into the Spectrace QuanX’s ten position sample tray and started the scanning sequence.

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

“So what’s this Spock thingy doing?”

“It’s a chemical analyzer, running a qualitative analysis to identify any of the Periodic Table of Elements in the sample.”

Rooke sighed and used her boot toe to spin around slowly on her stool. She was happy he was talking to her again but as long as he was speaking Geek, she might as well be alone in the lab.

She stopped spinning when she caught a glimpse of the back plate the tentacles were attached to, through the hemmed slice up the center of his black sweater.

“Are there little motors in these things?”

“If you mean servos, no.”

“So how do you move them?”

“With my mind, through their connection to my nervous system.”

“They talk to you, too – that’s why it felt like you were using telepathy but it’s really just a weird kind of talking to yourself.”

When she reached out to touch the plate, he straightened and started to turn. Two of the tentacles swiveled around to watch her warily.

“I won’t do anything,” she protested. “I just let you cut off a bit of me, it’s only fair.”

“Convince them first or they will defend themselves,” he muttered as he watched the computer monitor. “They rarely bother to check with me before doing so.”

“Well?” she asked, holding up her hand to them as if they were shy dogs. “I won’t hurt you.” Smiling, she tried another approach. Hey. Can you hear me?

We hear / you / yes / intentions?

“Wow.” Rooke glanced at Ock, but he wasn’t paying attention to her. I’m just curious about you ... and him. Do you understand?

Yesyesyesyes.

Sweet. So – what’s the skinny? I mean, can you tell me secrets about the Doc? Nothing that might tick him off, just anything.

No. / If you speak to one / you speak to all. / We all hear.

Oh. Oh, crap. She looked up at Ock and saw him watching her, his face unreadable. “Sorry.” She shrugged. “Can’t blame a girl for trying.”

“If you are through playing around, we have your results, such as they are.”

“Cool. Shoot.” She moved her stool to a spot where she could see the monitor. One of the tentacles was close, and she touched it carefully with her palm. It didn’t react, so she allowed her fingers to curl around it. It was cold but it felt very much alive, like a ridged snake.

“It is a composite of different elemental compounds, including lanthanides, an actinide, and two components unknown to the Periodic Table. Congratulations, Miss Dryden – you are a conundrum to modern science.”

“I guess I should write this down. Got a crayon?”

His smile surprised her. It could have represented actual humor, instead of the evil smirk he usually sported. “Would you like that in English?”

“If it’s not a strain to think down to my level.”

“Not at all.” The smile flashed again. “Lanthanides are rare earth elements, found only in very small amounts. One of them, tritium, I am rather familiar with – and you possess the only remaining quantity of it on the planet. The other is samarium, in a compound with cobalt. Actinides are elements found in nuclear reactions. Yours is uranium. The others … must be ingredients available only to your mutant designer. I assume they are the factors that prevent the other elements from reacting in a negative manner.”

“Well, we know I won’t blow up if I’m bounced on my ass. You already ran that test.”  She removed her hand from the tentacle as it moved behind him.

“You seem hale but the uranium could be causing all manner of health issues. It is radioactive, and especially harmful to the kidneys. Some of its sibling actinides derive from it, if it is fissioned, and they are all toxic as well. We should refrain from bombarding you with slow neutrons, in any event. The samarium-cobalt alloy, SmCo 5, is an extremely magnetic metal, possibly the cause of the fluid nature of the composite when combined with one of the unknown elements. Cobalt compounds can be toxic in large quantities, as well.”

“So what now?”

“We should get you up to the medical floor for proper testing, to determine if anything is being damaged. Balfour would have to escort you, of course. Most of my company is unaware of my identity.”

“Am I worth splitting stem to stern for my elements?” She couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

The doctor’s expression was thoughtful. “I can’t know that yet, without more tests. The tritium alone would make my reactor work but I haven’t yet discovered how to contain the fusion reaction indefinitely. I don’t think it would be simple to separate one element out of the whole, of course, and the others might help or hinder. The uranium would be as much a concern as the anomalies.”

“You’re serious.” Rooke stood up and took a step backward.

“I am not what I once was, any more than you are. It is pointless to pretend that our basic natures are not self-serving, even predatory. I will not waste my time acting contrary to my nature. If you remain here and prove useful to my efforts, I will take from you what is necessary to achieve those efforts.”

“You’d have a fight on your hands.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

“Maybe I’d be willing to help, in exchange for what I want.”

“What is that?”

“Information about me – more of it. I want the ability to take revenge on the man who ruined me. The last thing I’ll keep to myself for now. In return, if I can help with your project, I will.

“Helping me might not be survivable.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not having that much fun as a freak of nature anyway – but don’t be so sure you could kill me. I’ve tried a few times and nothing’s worked yet.”

~ ~ ~

Rooke thought about Ock’s speech all afternoon. She had returned to the penthouse when he started working on other things, and as gilded cages went, she had to admit it was almost worth dying to hang out here.

Like a prize calf, fed the best grains, housed like a pet – until the slaughter.

Finished with the initial exploration, including his fancy dressing room, she was disappointed to find nothing resembling a personal possession in the entire place beyond clothes. It was like a hotel suite and the doctor hadn’t bothered with luggage or mementos. There wasn’t even a picture of his wife anywhere.

Bothering the servant for anything seemed silly, so she never tried to communicate with him. She did watch him here and there, and noticed that he went down in the elevator quite often during the day. During one of those absences, she included what had to be his private rooms on her self-conducted tour. It was the only area that looked like anyone human or sane lived there.

Ock didn’t show until dinner was ready and they ate in silence. After the meal, Balfour brought him a whiskey and a cigar. She surprised them both by using sign language to ask him for another vodka and orange juice, no ice.

“You didn’t know that last night,” Ock said, his voice almost a whisper.

“Filched it out of your head this morning.”

“I see. My warning wasn’t strident enough?”

“Get as inventive as you like, Doc, it won’t ever be ‘strident enough’. I’m a brain thief – it’s how I survive. Don’t get your tighty-whities in a bunch, though – most of your brain is pretty unintelligible.”

Rooke watched, fascinated, as the metal arms helped him light the cigar. His mouth was a distraction, too. The lips weren’t thin or pale like so many medical doctors she’d seen. Everything about him was robust and larger than life, unconsciously lush and sensuous. The memory of that mouth, the kiss, put her in a slow burn. When he blew the pincer-held match out, she was too wrapped in lustful thoughts to notice that her drink had arrived.

“Can I ask you something about your wife?”

His expression was wary. “You may ask.” The dark eyes gave the real answer plainly – if she wasn’t careful on that subject, she’d regret it.

“Did she ever tell you that no matter how hard-boiled geek you get, you move like liquid sex?” His startled look made her smile. “I’ve known a lot of doctors. Most of them had stethoscopes, not – whatever that shit is downstairs – but still, as lab coat types go, you’re tight.”

“Now it’s my turn to ask for a translation but I won’t. Tell me, did your parents love each other?”

The question caught her off-guard. “Not sure, actually. They didn’t go around mooning over each other and they fought a lot, mostly over me. So maybe that’s a no?”

“Rosalie loved poetry, which was as confusing to me as the intricacy of my work was to her. Since her death, I’ve tried to understand more of it. One that captures our relationship was written by Poe, called Annabel Lee.” He picked up his glass and the cigar and rose from the table. “If you are curious, read it.” He left the room with his disdain trailing after him.

Poe was crackers too, she thought at him, a good match for you. She knew he heard it but he didn’t respond. Sighing, she downed her drink, hoping getting drunk would drown her other thoughts.

Rooke stretched out on the huge divan in the Water Room. The lights were off and she watched the dark and turbulent waters of the lake as she tried to drag the poem up out of his equally hazardous mind. When she found the words, they were wreathed with grief by his shifting memories. Unaware of how deeply she had gone to find it, she realized with a shock that touching his pain hurt her. Caught up in the tidal pull of it, she couldn’t immediately find her way out.

It was many and many a year ago
In a kingdom by the sea
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me

 I was a child and she was a child
In this kingdom by the sea
But we loved with a love that was more than love
I and my Annabel Lee
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me

 And this was the reason that, long ago
In this kingdom by the sea
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea

The image that rose in his mind brought with it a horrid pain – it was a tombstone, wet with falling rain. The name on it was fluid, as if the rain attempted to reform the letters. Just before she started to seriously fight to get free of it, he became aware of her and violently ejected her back into her own mind.

Rooke lay still and for a few moments she was afraid to breathe. She knew he was just across the floor in the other room and she could feel his anger.

Yet something else vied with him, defied him. She realized it was the collective mind of the tentacles, keeping him from entering the room and tossing her through the thick glass and down to the cold waters far below.

She lay awake listening for his heavy movements until dawn lit the room.

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

Otto sent the aggravating child downstairs with Balfour to the medical floor directly after breakfast. The quiet in the penthouse and the lab was a welcome respite, and the battery of testing would likely take most of the day.

He spent the day in the lab, running the powdered sample through other machines, trying every test he could with the equipment he had.

Tests support / the theory. / Attempt? / Small-scale preliminary trial?

“Without a full understanding of these anomalies?”

We see how they interact. / They allow fusion with tritium and anomalies / could contain reactor themselves. / Small amount of tritium to produce test we can control.

“We still don’t know if initiating fusion without a prior separation of the actinide element would produce an explosive result.”

Sample cleaves to itself / naturally in metallic state. / Actinide increase / energy surplus exponentially?

“Possibly.”

Anomalies defined / properties studied / ensures theory through test. / Subject not unstable – composite metal stable.

“Again, in theory. Yet if the fusion reaction cannot be stabilized, the presence of the uranium would increase the destructive potential as well. We’d melt Chicago into the lake.”

~ ~ ~

“I get to name some elements? Sweet. Can I name them anything? Like, Fred and Ralph?”

Otto sighed and sipped his wine. “Traditionally, yes. Though if you could muster some measure of maturity in the choice, I’m sure the scientific community would be grateful.”

“Yeah, right. I saw your Periodic Table thing yesterday. Some of those names were downright goofy. I mean – californium?”

“Take time to decide if you wish. The medical results were favorable?”

She stabbed the last of her desert and studied it on the end of the fork. “Yeah, I guess. They said the full report would be brought to you tomorrow.” After consuming the sweet, she grinned at him. “You have this entire place just eaten up with curiosity. I thought some of the helpers were going to bust. One of them finally asked me what you look like but the head doctor dude hushed him up quick. You must pay those guys enough not to poke around upstairs or down.”

He smiled, swirling the golden liquid gently in the glass. “When you first arrived and went through the process of having your voice recorded for the building’s security – also the retinal scan – that data was entered into the computer that runs my private elevator. If it had not been, you could not access the lab and penthouse levels.”

“If someone sneaks on, does the floor fall out and drop them into a tiger trap or something?”

“No.”

“What about someone authorized allowing someone else in there?”

“Not advisable. If anyone unauthorized enters the private elevator, with or without authorized personnel, a nerve gas is released in the car.”

“Ouch.” She picked up her wine and tossed it back. “You should seriously consider Bond villainy. Got all the trappings – including the sexy young female assistant for Bond to seduce to gain your secrets.”

He ignored the gibe. “Do you like the wine?”

“Sure.” She held her glass out to Balfour for a refill. “A damn sight better than the swill I usually get. Is it pricey?”

“Yes.”

“What – am I gulping somebody’s rent money?”

“This particular bottle is a 1799 Chateau d’Yquem. I believe Rucker picked it up for $56,237.”

She paled. “Somebody’s annual pension, for a couple years...”

“He seems to believe that if he inundates me with luxuries, I will become too addicted to give them up.”

“It’ll work on me.”

Otto studied her, a slight smile on his lips as she began sipping carefully at her second glass of wine. She was a pretty young woman for all of her indelicate habits and her courage in the face of adversity was admirable.

“Tomorrow, in the interest of giving you more information about your condition, I should like to read the medical report and study a few of the specific aspects of the cybernetics. I suspect they are a type of nanotechnology in principle, although far advanced beyond what is possible in science today.”

“It doesn’t have to wait until tomorrow. I’d let you study my specifics now.” Her smile faded as he frowned. “Or do you insist on wearing the lab coat for that?”

“Does this coarse flirtation succeed with many widowers you’ve met?”

“Actually, yeah.”

“Have you ever considered that your affections have value and should not be given away carelessly?”

“No.” She straightened in her chair. “I didn’t have a very proper upbringing, Doc – or any, much past the broken neck. The trauma triggered my mutant powers early, since if you’re going to be one, it usually hits you at puberty. I spent puberty paralyzed in a hospital bed, but that was after my mutant-hating parents abandoned me and moved to Seattle. Do you know why they moved me here from the Bronx? So the neighbors wouldn’t find out I was a mutie. I spied on other minds to have something – anything – to live for, to experience. Not many of those minds were proper young ladies I could learn to emulate.” She looked down into the golden wine. “I used to spin elaborate dreams, for myself and others, and I’d try to get lost in them – but they aren’t real ... and if you try to make them real, it can hurt you.”

Impressed with her honesty, he nodded. “So when this Spiral offered to help you, consequences weren’t considered?”

“Not for a minute. It was torture, too – but I thought, when I could walk again, that it was worth it. After that, I threw myself into any and every experience I could, just in case it didn’t last or something went wrong.”

“Is it worth it?”

“I’m not so sure now.” When she looked up at him there were tears in her eyes. She wiped them away angrily. “I don’t think I’m human anymore. I’m not even sure I’m alive.”

“You possess a heartbeat, you breathe, you must eat – these are all good indications of life.”

“I don’t bruise. The metal heals any other damage. When I cut myself, I don’t die – and what’s up with the black shit? If that’s blood, I think humanity’s out the window. I have lights on my chest and up my spine, and sometimes I’m so afraid of myself...”

Otto had reached across the table to offer her his hand before he knew it. She slipped her fingers into his immediately. Their tips were metal, with highly sophisticated sensors instead of fingerprints. To comfort her, he ran his thumb over the flesh of her knuckles.

“I understand.” The two tentacles not helping to support their weight had risen to watch her.

“I really am sorry about what I did – the dream of your wife – if it hurt you. It’s just – since I can’t help me, it feels good to help someone else. Also, it sort of balances out all the petty crime guilt.”

“If I practiced what I preach, I should allow it … but I’m afraid I’ve become very private and rather paranoid. The grief, the absence of her – chokes me, even now.”

“Would you tell me about her?”

He winced and withdrew his hand. “I wouldn’t know how. My memories are dimming and I fear my association with these,” he lifted his hands to touch the raised metal arms, “drives me ever further from the man she knew and loved. Already, so much is lost.”

“Doc – Dr. Octavius … if you’d let me, I could help you. One of the things I learned before I gave up on letting Xavier be my Yoda was to blend telepathy and dream-spinning. He said I could use it to help people who suffer from things like trauma, brain damage, and Alzheimer’s. Your memories aren’t lost, they’re just tucked away – like photos that hurt too much to look at for a while. Sometimes they get tangled up in traumatic memories and Xavier told me that if the brain buries the bad, it can take some of the good with it. I learned how to separate them.”

“I assume there are risks, beyond your habit of tampering and thieving?”

“To be honest, I was taught that it’s better to let the bad slowly resurface with the good, so your brain can ‘process it’? I had to argue with him on that, personally. If I could wipe all the muck out of my head and just keep the good – I mean, who wouldn’t? What sucks is, I can’t really fix me, it barely works at all. Way easier to help someone else.”

“That is a universal truth.”

“Your brain, with them, is no cake walk ... but I know I can find the good memories and pull them out of hiding and leave the bad stuff where it is. Anything too tangled up, I’d just leave alone. That should reduce most of the risks.” She stopped her head-long rush of explanation and looked at him with a wistful expression. “If you could trust me a little – I could give her back to you.”

Otto watched her in silence, taking in what she had said. The fragments of memory he still possessed were tainted by the failure, the ghastly miscalculation. The cleanest of them was in the moments before it started.

Mere moments, one smile … and then the shattered glass. “It feels like sand through my fingers,” he whispered.

His awareness of physical pain came over him slowly and when one of the tentacles moved to the floor, he drew in a sharp breath.

“What’s wrong?”

Otto heard the elevator doors open. Rucker was punctual as always.

“It is time for my injection. The accident that remade me was not without consequences.” He rose with the help of the tentacles and looked down at the young woman. “Morphine, twice a day – thus far, it’s the only thing Rucker’s managed to get me addicted to, I’m afraid.”

She rose with him. “Can I do anything to help?”

“No, stay here, please. I will return … and I shall consider your offer.”

“Doctor?”

He turned his head. “Yes?”

“Thank you for letting me in here – I won’t abuse your trust.”

He nodded briefly and left her.

Chapter Text

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies
Than tir’d eyelids upon tir’d eyes
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies
Here are cool mosses deep
And thro’ the moss the ivies creep
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep

~ Lines from The Lotus-eaters (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

No finer wine than love
to drug the mind
and soothe the pain
but the press is still
the barrel webbed
and all sweet grapes decayed
Lift the empty glass to memory
to hope and need turned rust
and speak of a love that ended love
the death of dreams, and the taste of dust

~ Of Dreams and Dust (W.R.R.)

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

“Have you tried to confront him before?” Otto asked, mildly surprised, though he could guess her answer.

“Yep, little over a year ago, I caught up with the bastard in San Francisco.” She made a face. “He trounced me. That junk in my metal that you said is really magnetic? Mags used it to stick me to the Golden Gate, pinned my wrist with a piece of bridge. Didn’t even wait around to find out if I was alive or dead, or why I’d come at him. Must be used to it. That’s how I met the X-Men – officially anyway. Wolverine fished me out of the bay after I managed to claw myself loose.”

“You were drowning?”

“I was trying and failing. I think I breathe out of habit.” She touched one of the two tentacles that were lending him support.

Otto stood near the edge of the roof, grateful for the cold night wind. The young woman sat on the wide stone ledge. The harrowing drop at her back didn’t seem to concern her. She had gone straight to it to look over the edge the moment he’d brought her up here. He watched her stroke the metal actuator as if she were petting a dog. It wasn’t a sensation he could feel with his skin but his mind, connected to the sentient thing, was aware of the contact.

“You are a mutant – you didn’t get along with your own kind?”

“I’m not really their kind anymore. Cyborgs aren’t on the top of the list for dinner party invites. Wolverine was decent to me, though I’ve heard he’s got reason to hate people like me. Hell, they were all nice. Helping poor little wayward muties is their thing. I couldn’t stick with them, though. Xavier’s got the whitest hat around – he’s like a mutie Roy Rogers, even though he can creep you out, too.” She shrugged. “I didn’t want to spend my life helping people who’d rather kill me.”

“So why persist in the idea of helping me?”

“You’re a special case. You’re like me.” She leaned her head on the horizontal curve of the tentacle as if it were a piece of railing.

“Why do you use the term ‘mutie’? I understand it’s a slur?”

She shrugged again. “I don’t know. Learned behavior? You’re the scientist. I was raised by rope-wrapping mutant haters, after all.”

“How did they die?”

“Their apartment building fell on them.” The girl held his gaze without a hint of emotion in her black eyes. “All I wanted was to see them, to let them know I was better – but they wouldn’t even look at me. They did before I left, though. The begging was ironic after all they did to me.”

“Other people in the building were not harmed?”

“They bailed before – I made sure, made them go. ‘Pissed off’ is a great fuel for mutant talents.” Straightening, she glanced up at him. “What about you? Talk to your folks?” Smiling, she added, “Not since you ‘died’, obviously, but before?”

Otto shook his head. “My father was killed in a work accident while I was in college. My mother … died of a heart attack, before I was married.”

“Smells like a story.”

“What?”

“You’re uncomfortable talking about her. What happened?”

“Nothing worth mentioning,” he muttered, looking away.

“Guilt. You feel responsible. Come on, it’s not that bad. I yanked a two-story building down on mine. Talking about it helps, old man.”

“You’re rather cavalier about it.”

“They shouldn’t have dumped me. So spill – why do you think you’re responsible? Heart attacks are pretty common.”

Otto settled on the ledge beside her. What harm could it do? “I wanted to marry Rosalie but my mother didn’t approve of her, so I called off the engagement.” He watched the dark city streets far below them. “Still, I couldn’t give her up. Then I found out that my mother was dating a man in secret while forbidding me to have a relationship. We fought ... I’ve never told that to anyone but Rosalie.”

“What did she say?”

“That I shouldn’t blame myself.”

“Smart woman.”

“I understand your desire for revenge on Magneto but it would be foolish to attempt it. He is one of the most powerful members of the homo-superior race.”

“If you don’t pay attention to mutant affairs, how do you know that?”

“I’m capable of opening a newspaper.” Otto turned to face her. “I hope you don’t have equal plans to rid the world of Spider-Man. Not only is that a daunting task, he is now someone I call a friend.”

“The X-boys and him were trying to fight Mags, so I guess I don’t want their heads on pikes.” She smiled. “What does Spidey think of you? You guys buried the hatchet and now you go for a brew here and there?”

“He helped me regain some measure of myself before my alleged death. I haven’t sought to change his perception of my condition.”

“So that’s a no.”

“What is the third thing you want, beyond revenge and a thirst for self-discovery?”

Shaking her head, she smiled again. “Nope, you don’t get to know that. Not yet.”

Otto frowned. When he rose and returned to the elevator doors, she followed. “I will allow you to help me if you can.” He turned and pinned her with a malevolent stare. “Any attempt to control my mind will get your limbs torn off.”

“You’re not a subtle guy, are you?”

~ ~ ~

He was afraid to sleep. Accepting her help didn’t make trust automatic. She had explained that her strongest power was manipulating dreams – and that she would use telepathy as he slept to bring his memories of Rosie back into his conscious mind, weaving them into his dreams.

Otto didn’t know what to expect. He had warned her not to attempt to put words in his wife’s mouth, or to do anything more than help him remember. Did he trust her to stick to that agenda? Not for a moment.

His bedroom next to the lab was silent and cold. Arms wrapped around a pillow, he felt one of the tentacles cover his body with a thick blanket.

“We’re taking a risk letting this creature roam around in our mind.”

This being isn’t strong. / We can sense the presence, track it / throw it out if it threatens. / Our mind is difficult to influence, impossible to control.

“I hope so – but if she tries...?”

We will / snap her in two. / Call for Her. / With Her, we have peace.

“Rosie,” he whispered.

Morphine raced through his blood, soothing the tangled ache in his spine and the constrictive pain of his encased ribcage. Lulled by its deadening power, he allowed it to pull him into the blackness that eternally waited in his mind, like an open grave.

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

Rooke didn’t consciously betray her promise but in the midst of coaxing his memories to the surface, she was powerfully drawn again to the emotions they stirred in him. It was shockingly intense and perhaps more than her abilities could safely handle.

She could feel him trying to reach out to the visions she called up from his subconscious. His mind remembered when she’d made it possible to touch them – to connect to the images rather than merely watching them unfold. Yet that was impossible unless she merged with the visions. He’d warned her against that when he agreed to let her try this, yet his own sleeping mind attempted to pull her into it.

Fighting the impulses, she witnessed thousands of fragments of a life that seemed alien to her but drew her inescapably. Then the flash of a scene steeped in desire caught her and pitched her headfirst into the events of the memory.

Her body lay on the divan in the penthouse, alone, but her mind was abruptly seeing a warm softly lit bedroom in some sort of loft home. A man pressed her beneath his weight, hunger in his dark eyes. His large hands were gentle, his lips hot against her throat, and her will to resist melted in the instant that she felt him drive himself inside the image she wore.

Knowing she should retreat, she lifted the hands of Rosalie Octavius like gloves over her own and ran the fingers through his thick hair. His mouth suckled the dusky nipples of the older woman but hers, pink and hard enough to ache, felt only the ghostly touch of the memory. Melding with him as she had before would strengthen the sensations, for both of them – but if he caught her at it...

Otto, she whispered, attempting to remain hidden inside his memory but hoping he would bring her into it like he had before.

She gasped when it happened. For a man heading into the deep end of his forties, he put to shame not only his peers but most of the younger men she’d had, too. Any fear of consequences was drowned in feelings she could barely understand but knew she could easily get addicted to.

Rooke smiled and tried to bring her telepathy in carefully, to fish in his mind for things his wife might say or do – to keep the illusion strong. She ran her fingers down his ribs, and up his hairless chest. The pectorals and biceps were amazing. Did he do pull ups on the lab equipment or was he hiding a gym?

A misty vision of movement over his shoulder caught her eye for a moment and then disappeared – one of the tentacles? If they were breaking through, she was slacking somewhere. Afraid he might abruptly see the wrong hair color in his dream or feel her piercings instead of his wife’s unadorned lips, Rooke tried to focus. She let her telepathy weaken slowly and spun the dream tighter.

Aren’t you happy I couldn’t sleep? he asked. His mind voice was husky, the thought full of amusement.

She was in too deep to see the dream as a whole or sense what Rosalie might have answered in the actual memory. Panic threatened to distract her. Then another voice, different from his or his wife’s, solved her problem. It spoke with an oddly familiar alien cadence.

There’s still time / for sleep, / once we relax you. / The demonstration isn’t early.

Rooke stared over Ock’s shoulders at the flicker of the tentacles as they spoke the dead wife’s words. How did they fool him? They couldn’t be mistaken for a feminine voice – but he smiled down at her, utterly taken in. It had to be what she’d said in this memory, which meant they were helping her. Goose bumps spread over her physical body even as the psychic image she wore was bathed in sweat.

His body soon took her mind off of her fear. Falling into it again, allowing herself to experience everything as completely as she could, she tumbled through a few mind-altering orgasms before he joined her in one.

~ ~ ~

The sun blinded Rooke as she struggled to sit up, a momentary disorientation making her feel dizzy. The loft bedroom was gone and the soft music of the fountain ran behind her. The heavy body she vaguely remembered falling asleep beside was missing. Did he get up early?

Cold reality washed over her as she looked out the windows of the Water Room.

“Oh bloody hell,” she muttered. She had fallen asleep connected to his mind.

Had she been discovered? She was still in one piece. Where was the inscrutable Dr. Octavius?

She ate breakfast alone and the uneasy worry increased. When the servant, Paul Balfour, finally returned, she signed a battery of questions at him. All he would communicate about his master was that the doctor was in the lab.

Rooke tried not to think about nerve gas on the way down to the lab level. She found Ock in a dusty back section of the vast laboratory, studying an incomprehensible four-piece structure. It was stark, weird, and ugly enough to be one of those modern art sculptures parked in front of public buildings. A mass of cloth lay in a heap to one side. Some sort of cover?

The doctor didn’t seem any worse for wear after her memory work had gone off the rails the night before. He was dressed to unimpress in brown slacks, brown work boots, and a black sweater. The sweater had been modified with an open back and ties at neck and waist. She might be wearing yesterday’s ensemble but at least she could claim to have a fashion sense.

She hadn’t bothered with trying to be quiet when she arrived. His tentacles’ ability to sense motion was a lot better than hers and though none of them were looking at her, she knew he was aware of her presence. Yet when he spoke, she only heard part of the conversation.

“It’s operational. We only need the fuel source.” The tentacles moved, touching the structure in places, as his human arms rose, palms up. “It must be a controlled experiment.” Two of the mechanical ‘mouths’ pointed back at him, opening silently. “In time, perhaps … but not until we’ve seen how the actinides will affect the fusion.”

“You’re a psychiatrist’s wet dream, Doc.”

He turned to face her. “Good morning. I was about to send for you.”

“Why, is it peeling time?”

One eyebrow rose in a question. “No. I need to study your cybernetics. The medical report is actually favorable, so in theory, your metal isn’t a hazard to your health at present. What it can do, and how, is still in question.”

“Maybe it’s not hazardous because I’m the poster girl for Romero’s Unholy Trinity.”

“If I must curb my collegiate diction, you could meet me half-way and use less vernacular slang.”

“Zombie movies. Romero’s the director.” She watched as the tentacles replaced the cover over the structure. “You missed breakfast.”

“Balfour brought it to me. I spend a great deal of time working and very little time upstairs.”

“A real workaholic troglowhatsit.”

“Troglodyte.” He approached her with a slight smile. “Balfour suggested you might need clothes. If you wish, he can take you shopping this afternoon.”

“You buying?”

“Yes.”

“Awesome.” She walked beside him toward the front of the lab. “Got any requests?”

“For what?”

“Clothes. You like your waifs in jeans and tees or skirts and cardigans? Not that I’d be caught undead in a cardigan. Then there’s always the Catholic schoolgirl look. Lingerie or leather? This burg’s got it all.”

“No requests,” he answered with a frown. “Have a seat.”

She dropped onto the stool she’d been spinning on before. He sat in the computer chair beside her and picked up her right wrist. Turning her hand over, he studied her palm and fingertips.

“The hand’s sense of touch is facilitated by these sensors – quite ingenious. Are you aware of touch otherwise? The skin can feel it?”

Repressing the urge to give a ribald response, she just nodded.

“What is the function of this?” His fingers brushed over the black stone in her palm.

“I don’t know. The left one got smashed once but it repaired itself.”

“While it was broken, did you notice anything different?”

“Well, it fixed itself pretty quick. I was a little wonky and almost numb in that arm but then it was fine again.”

“I suspect this is the reason you can feel this,” he said, and gripped her left shoulder lightly. “The feet are the same?”

“Yep.” She bent and fought off one boot and sock. The feel of his fingers on her foot gave her a shiver.

“Tactile sensation and muscle function are achieved but you don’t feel pain.”

“Nope. I can tell when stuff is broken and I can feel it fix itself but it isn’t like pain.”

“The metal must have stimulated the neural pathways linking the cerebellum with the motor cortex to allow movement but either bypassed or suppressed the nociceptors.”

“What-a-ceptors?”

“The nerves that sense pain.” He touched the black stone in the center of the ball of her foot. “If these components alone could be reproduced, they could improve the lives of many.” He frowned. “It seems to be a crystalline substance, not a constructed device. Are its benefits a natural property or is it programmable in some way?”

“Beats me.”

“What?”

“You’re slipping into Geek again, Doc.”

“I was speaking to them.”

As one of the tentacles lent him support, the other three moved restlessly around him, all of them watching her.

“I’m trying to be good and stay out of your head but it’s hardly fair to have half the chat internally while I sit here like chopped liver.”

“Of course. I apologize.”

She couldn’t tell if his smile was mocking or just amused. “So how’d it go last night? You haven’t said a word about it. I was worried you were pissed at me. Did I help?”

His eyes evaded hers. He released her foot and took a closer look at the patch of metal on her face. The touch of fingers was impersonal – as clinical as any medical doctor – but she welcomed it as thoughts of the dream warmed her.

“My memories seem clearer, yes.”

Rooke reached out and brushed the bangs from his dark eyes. He sat back away from her immediately. “I wanted to ask – how did you manage to stay happy so long? Most people I spy on just bitch about their marriages.”

Ock gave her a searching look. “Most marry for the wrong reasons.”

“The number one reason seems to be wanting exclusive shag rights on someone – but that’s the men. The women fall for a guy’s bank account.”

“I stand by my statement. I imagine the percent that actually achieve a real bond is minimal.”

“Well I wouldn’t do it. It’s probably not legal for cyborgs in Illinois anyway but still. Why strap yourself to one person forever?”

“The concept of love seems to elude you.”

“Is it that simple?” Then she smiled and answered her own question. “For you, I guess it is. I could feel it when I accessed your memories – took a while to realize what it was. I’ve only read about it. I think most people are in the same boat.”

“While I appreciate the assistance –”

“You’d rather I shut up about it. Got it. Zipping the lip.” She sighed. “So what now?”

“You mentioned a motion-sensing function? This panel over your left eyebrow is also a sensor but of a very different nature. It is quite alien but if I’m correct in my guess, this is what gives you the input for detecting things around you. According to the CT scans, it appears to be connected directly to your occipital lobe. Does it create a visual image?”

“Um … there’s a grid it puts up over my sight. I can see through it but it shows me who is where, even behind me – very Terminator.”

~ ~ ~

Rooke lay prone in the Water Room, sheets of the medical report spread all around her on the divan. Ock had said she could learn a lot about herself if she read it but it was written similar to how he talked.

Shopping had been a lot more fun. Leaving the doctor to his public service projects, she had hopped into a limo with Balfour and raided both the finest and the funkiest stores she could find.

A new sense of freedom had gripped her and she selected clothes for their style, instead of their concealing ability. The short pleated black skirt and spaghetti string gray top she wore now displayed her alien complexion alluringly. She couldn’t wait for dinner and if he didn’t come upstairs, she’d go down and shock him there.

Not that he’ll notice the breasty swell going on. If he stares at my chest at all it’ll be to figure out what the lights do. Her fingers touched the artistic spray of them, feeling the warmth they gave off. What the hell are they for, anyway?

She fell asleep on the report and didn’t wake up until she heard Ock’s voice. The words didn’t register but at least he’d come out of his hole. The time must have come for more world-class grub and ransom-note wine.

“This is quite a change in appearance.”

Rooke sat up, noted that the black lace edge of the bra showed as she’d engineered it to, and smiled at him. “You want to look at specifics, so I thought I’d dress for easy access – and before you ask, I haven’t a clue what the lights do.”

“I believe they are collecting your seemingly limitless energy and are therefore the reason any damage can be repaired so quickly.”

“Someone’s been doing their homework.”

“It seems yours has been more comfortable than enlightening.”

“All the science-speak puts me to sleep.” She stood and stretched. “Did you want me to mess with your head more tonight?”

“Do you see the memories?” His reluctance was so obvious she didn’t need telepathy to feel it.

“Yes. I have to.”

“Do I need to remind you to keep it confidential?”

“Nope. Why worry about that, anyway? You’re just going to store my brain on a shelf and plug the rest of me into that contraption downstairs. I can’t call National Enquirer from my Mason jar. Your secrets are safe, Dr. Frankenstein.”

“If there is a way around harming you, that will be my first choice.”

“Warms my heart. Can I get deliveries up here?”

“Most things you might want can be sent in care of Mr. Rucker. Then Balfour would bring them to you.”

“Does that include a high-dollar escort service? A girl can’t live by gourmet dining alone.”

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

Otto drowned greedily in the flood of images and sensations, though they came faster and less vividly than before. Yet in the midst of joy was fear. They would fade again, wouldn’t they? In the end, they were memories only. Nothing could give him back his wife in the flesh.

Rosalie called out to him in his mind, begging him to get down from the controls of the machine, away from the fusion reactor – but that hadn’t been the last time he heard her voice.

The scream, the glass. No! He wrenched his mind away from the horror and guilt. See her alive, smiling, content. Sifting through the freshly reclaimed memories, he found her standing in the church dressed in flowing white. Younger, yes – though her beauty had never waned.

Snatches of verse she had read to him on their honeymoon in Tuscany slipped into his thoughts. The lines were from some sort of work called Sweet Incarnadine by a woman named Jane Siberry. Poet or singer? He couldn’t remember. As she had read it, his heart had filled with more love than he could ever hold.

The first time I leaned over you
and looked into your eyes
I said to myself
this is what it must be like
to have everything
you’d ever want

He had always been a man full of dreams, visions of how to make the world better. She had turned all of her energies and efforts into helping him achieve those dreams. As an equal partner in all aspects of his life, she had become his world, as much an obsession as the fusion project that killed her.

Yet obsession daily fulfilled cannot torment a man. It was only after he lost her that he knew the extent of how much of his life depended on her supportive and loving presence. Her loss had been as much a factor in the madness that followed the accident as the abrupt fusion of his mind with the metal tools that kept him in thrall to the old dream.

Now into this morass of despair and crippled good intentions walked a creature of fierce and stubborn will. A child-woman of unknown potential, capable not only of making his dream succeed at last but able to give him Rosie in the only way possible now.

It wasn’t real but he couldn’t care. Still half asleep, he searched for the other parts of his mind. “Find her. Tell her … anything.”

She is / here, directing the memories. / She has melded with / us before.

“What? When?” He stirred in the tangle of churned blankets in the subterranean room.

Last night. / The memory before we came. / She wore the mantle of Her you want. That is how She / could touch us. She makes Her alive.

The shock woke him fully. “Then it was more than a dream, like before.”

Yesyesyesyes.

Otto rose and went to the elevator. He had fallen asleep in his clothes, so there was no delay. He wanted to confront her before his nerve failed him. He never moved silently, so when he found her, he knew she was awake.

“Oh God,” she whispered in the dark. Her silhouette sat up on the divan. “I didn’t do anything –”

“Do it again.”

“What?”

“You made her real, made her become something I could touch.”

“That – that’s more your trick than mine.”

“Explain this.”

“I can’t. I let it happen, yeah – but your mind is the one pulling me in.” He was silent and she continued in a frightened whisper, “You have the strongest mind I’ve ever felt, after those X-telepaths. Your emotions almost suffocate me. You didn’t want me to meddle but I couldn’t help it. I could barely control it, either.”

“But you can make it happen. You can give her to me.”

“Yes, but – it’s just a lie –”

“I don’t care. It’s the only way.” Darting forward, he gripped her shoulders. “Do this – and I will devise a way to help you take your revenge. Give my wife to me – and I will tear Magneto to pieces for you myself!”

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

His mind reeked of madness as his hands held her fiercely. Desperation blended with anger – more at himself and fate than her, at least – raged in his thoughts.

Rooke tried to relax but he was scaring her. She’d thought he was going to hurt her at first but he wanted her to do the exact thing she feared he would catch her at before. Did he realize what it meant for her?

“Please calm down,” she pleaded. “I can’t do anything with your thoughts in a hurricane.”

He released her and stood straight. “I will trust you in this. I don’t believe you are capable of taking over my will.”

One tentacle watched her over his head, as the lower pair supported their collective weight. The fourth moved along the divan and ran its muzzle down her thigh.

“To be brutally honest, I can barely handle you calm and happy – pissed and intense sort of caves my talents.” She reached out and touched the tentacle that stroked her. It allowed her to pick it up. Trying to calm herself, she caressed the muzzle, holding it against her naked chest. “There’s an easier way,” she said.

“Tell me.”

“There’s nothing stopping you from just lying down here. I can help you with more than my mind.”

The tentacle in her hands moved and struck her throat even as she heard his inhuman growl. It didn’t try to throttle her or break her neck but its grip was terrifying. Her fingers tried to pry at it, popping their diamond claws – but they couldn’t even scratch the metal.

Frantic, she opened her telepathy, wincing at the backlash of his rage. Don’t!

“You think you can’t die – so why such fear?”

I’m sorry! Please... Tears ran down her face.

“You will not speak of that again. Understood? Not even in jest.”

Yes, yes! The tentacle released her and she gasped and choked, her hands flying to protect her throat. She leaned forward and coughed.

Metal crunched on wood as his shadow backed away. “Do what I asked and only that. In return, you’ll have your revenge. Play with me … and we’ll find out if you’re capable of dying.”

Rooke crumpled and sobbed as she listened to him retreating down the hall; whether he was still listening or not, she sent a vicious thought in his wake.

I wish I could die … but I’d do it in a way that wouldn’t even leave a scrap of me for your fucking project!  She waited, full of defiance, but she got nothing else from him but silence.

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

He didn’t see Rooke over the next week. Taking his meals in the lab, he worked almost continually through long sixteen-hour days. If Balfour informed him that he was taking her elsewhere in the building at a particular time, he would take that opportunity to go up to the penthouse for a few hours.

Otto knew she was at least somewhat compliant, because when he did manage to sleep, his dreams were all of Rosalie – not scattered glimpses or confusing symbolism, but real memories. He was able to walk through them with his wife, able to touch her hand or lose himself in the warmth of her love. The scenes of her death and his failure were gone.

If he was calm, holding the madness at bay, he could gather Rosie to him and make love to her as they once had – languidly and perfectly. They would talk and laugh together when they were tired, until the respite allowed them to begin again.

The only torment that remained was waking. Rising to his feet every day, facing the work, he faced the lie.

~ ~ ~

We should / speak to her. / We can’t begin the test / until we do.

“We will … but not yet. There’s still much to do.” He finished keying a program into the computer and cursed, his hands curling into fists. “We were brutal to her. I – you – drove me to it!”

Her invitation upset you. / We do not / care if you have her, / but we will not let memories stop the work.

“I can’t.”

You are / able. / ‘Can’t’ is / incorrect.

“Machines don’t understand love. Don’t try. I’ve only ever wanted one woman. Death hasn’t changed that. I won’t allow it to.”

Chapter Text

These are the clouds about the fallen sun
The majesty that shuts his burning eye
The weak lay hand on what the strong has done
Till that be tumbled that was lifted high
And discord follow upon unison
And all things at one common level lie
And therefore, friend, if your great race were run
And these things came, so much the more thereby
Have you made greatness your companion
Although it be for children that you sigh
These are the clouds about the fallen sun
The majesty that shuts his burning eye

~ These Are The Clouds (W.B. Yeats)

I’ve spoken with death
and so
I know
the futility of things we learn
a discovery I made at the cost
of a suffering
so intense I keep on wondering
whether it was worth it

As far as I’m concerned
I’m still there
dying there
a little more each day
dying over again
the death of those who died

~ Untitled (Charlotte Delbo)

“There is no sin, except stupidity.” – Oscar Wilde

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

Otto stood by the elevator doors and watched her. Her fingertips made small tapping sounds on the stone ledge as she leaned over it to look straight down into the void.

The city below was a hive of dark columnar shadows and patterns of light, though the night life of Chicago had escaped the business district hours ago to flood the commercial and entertainment centers around it.

She was dressed in jeans and Prada boots with a scarlet angora sweater under her black leather trench coat. The clothes had the look of a costume on a creature who might have forgotten how to behave in a society she still hoped to blend with.

His fingers toyed with the edges of his own long coat as he walked across the roof. The thump and crush of the tentacles on the concrete was loud over the howling wind.

“I would like to offer you my apology, Miss Dryden.”

When the girl turned to face him, he couldn’t have guessed her mood but her tone conveyed it clearly.

“I wish you’d just shelve me and plug me in, Doc. What’s the hold up?” When he didn’t reply, she added, “Not having second thoughts, are you? No point pretending you give a damn about me.”

“We are prepared for a small controlled experiment but every precaution must be taken.”

“We.” She shook her head. “You’re weirder than me. Why do you care if the world has energy, anyway? I’ve only got so much metal in me. You could dice me into serviceable portions, dole it out, try to make it last. Eventually, you’ll run out. Then your machine won’t work anymore and the world will be pissed. They only want to be saved and helped while the fire is hot – let them get comfy and they’ll turn on you.”

“I’ve told you my reasons.”

“How it would help, maybe – but not why you care. If you aren’t in it for the prizes and fame, why not just let people stew until they kill the planet – it’s not your job to save them from themselves.”

“No, but it is worth doing, if it can be done.”

“Unless a gang of oil barons decide to protect their fortunes by making you take a dirt nap.”

“I can protect myself well enough.” He stopped before he came too close. “This could change the future of the planet ... ensure it has one, at least.”

“Hope it works out for you ... and hey – if you’re saving the world, maybe the superfreaks won’t tear your doors off and drag you to prison for your crimes.” She crossed her arms over her chest, ignoring the tendrils of hair that escaped her ponytail to fly in her face. “Sing the ‘Ollre’ song if you want but they’ll know it’s you and one good deed doesn’t even the score with that crowd, trust me.”

Perplexed at her attitude, he offered his hands to her, palms up. She came forward and took them in hers without hesitation.

“I thought you’d hate me for treating you so badly. Yet two beats past asking why I haven’t carved you into cubes, you’re angry because my energy solution will put me at risk. You are a confusing person.”

“I – want to go out. Can we?”

“If you want to take a sponsored evening out, you may. I’ll have Balfour give you a credit card and a driver.”

“Not like that – you have to come with me. We can go to Lincoln Park, stay out of the crowds.”

“I can’t risk being seen to relieve a bout of cabin fever.”

“Just Fay Wray me down the building then.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s an experience I haven’t had yet. This heap is bucking for the tallest building title, and it has to be a trip to swing down it the way you do.”

“I don’t think I’m up to that at the moment.” He released her hands and backed away from her. “I assure you, fatalism is unnecessary at this stage. It is entirely possible that I will only need a small amount of your remarkable metal for the fuel source. The reactor isn’t a coal furnace. Once it is created, and if it can be stabilized, it will provide energy equivalent to the sun without further donations. The presence of the uranium alone could ensure enough power with a minimum sample.”

“What about the ‘might not be survivable’ speech?”

“Extensive tests have redeemed your chances.”

“Leaving me … where?”

“When the reactor is a success, I will begin the task of helping you achieve your revenge.”

She settled on the ledge again and looked up at him. “Let’s do one of those hypo-thingy suppose things, okay?”

“Hypothetical.”

“Yeah. Let’s say we scratch each other’s backs and I actually manage to paste Mags before he can crush me like a soda can. Do I come back here to say thanks and find the doors locked behind me? I mean, is it ‘sayonara, babe’ once I go off to do battle or what? Because if it is, I’ll just head out from wherever I’m at and find a new hobby.”

“You would be welcome to return, if you like, even to take a place here officially. Your talents have proven your worth already.”

“If I’d stayed with the X-Men, I was going to call myself ‘Dreamspinner’ but we’ve already talked about why I didn’t stick with them. My talents aren’t much practical use to a guy like you, Doc, and I don’t think I want to spend my life that way. It’s a dead end without a lot of compromises.”

“Practicality isn’t everything,” Otto whispered. She couldn’t have heard him over the wind but she sighed as if she had. Was she in his mind? Raising his voice, he offered, “It would mean an end to running – no longer living on the fringes.”

“I do okay on my own. Beats going crazy over shit I can’t have. Don’t get hooked on dreams,” she said, staring back out at the drop behind her. “I learned the hard way before and it was easier to give up coke and pills.”

“Nothing would be denied you here. All of my people make an obscene salary and Mr. Rucker finds ways to satisfy a variety of illegal substance tastes for those who have them.”

“Not looking for a boss, old man.” She turned back to him with a bitter expression on her face. “Besides, you wouldn’t want to trade for what I want.”

He frowned. “It eludes me why you persist in that idea. I had thought I was quite clear before.”

“What can I say?” She grinned wickedly. “I’m a natural thrill-seeker.” Leaning back, she lifted her fingers in a waggling wave and then tossed herself over the edge.

Shocked, Otto rushed to the ledge. He propelled himself after her instantly, ignoring the pain that tore at him as the tentacles whipped down the side of the building at over fifty miles per hour.

He caught her halfway down, enraged by her laughter. The ponytail made an excellent handle to get her attention as they hung from the grip of three tentacles. The fourth had snagged her waist with its thin interior coil. The agony of the jerking stop made breathing a challenge.

“I am very sorry you can’t feel pain,” he hissed at her as he pinned her head to the stones by her hair.

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

The temptation to kiss him was intense but his iron grip on her hair held her frozen.

“We’re almost there now – want to hit the park?”

The look in his eyes might have killed a girl who wasn’t already undead. The lips were pulled back in a snarl. She tried to slip a telepathic probe in but his mind broke it on contact.

Without a word, he began moving them down to the street, maneuvering around one corner to position them over the mouth of the underground parking garage. He dropped her to the ground from a hundred feet.

Landing undamaged, Rooke watched him as he swung down in front of the iron grill door that blocked the garage. His heavy six-foot-two frame assumed a hostile stance but the tentacles were arrayed around him on the concrete to keep him on his feet.

She’d known the stunt would deprive her of his good will but she couldn’t care. It had been one hell of a ride – almost as good as having him in his memories the night before.

He turned and went to the access panel beside the entrance. The metal arms were obviously helping him walk. Rooke felt a sliver of guilt. He’d be late for his shot and probably not quick to forgive her but she couldn’t regret it.

Leaning down slightly, he spoke his real surname to the machine. As the barrier began to trundle up, he looked back at her. “Have you had enough for now?”

“Sure.”

“Do that again and I will let you break the street.”

~ ~ ~

Rucker’s glare was malicious as he administered the injection. Rooke met his gaze evenly, her expression cold.

“Get some sleep, Otto.”

“Later. There’s something I have to finish in the lab.”

“This glorified erector set can only help you so much,” Rucker replied, exasperation in his voice. “You’re still human.”

The metal arms lifted the doctor to his feet and helped steady him as he frowned at the lawyer. “Every time you say that it feels less true.” Without a word to Rooke, he left the room.

Staring at her, the lawyer frowned as the elevator thrummed.

“What?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Make no mistake, miss: as long as you remain here, your life depends on your usefulness to him.”

“I must be useful then. He was just trying to offer me a permanent job around here.” She smirked at his attempt to cover his surprise. Walking past him, she patted him on the shoulder condescendingly. “Don’t worry. My little plunge off the roof might have changed his mind.”

A real glutton for punishment, she went down to the lab. Ock turned ignoring her into an art form but she didn’t mind. It gave her a chance to occupy a corner and watch him.

Rooke didn’t understand anything of what he was doing, beyond the fact that he must be readying the equipment that had started all of his problems in the first place.

Doggedly keeping at it for a couple billion faceless morons made no sense to her, especially since most of them would only see him as the criminal he had briefly become.  What had his body count been? She couldn’t remember. An operating room full of surgeons and nurses, several NYPD officers, and some random New Yorkers – most of whom were killed by falling debris.

Exactly the thing that crippled me. Yet she couldn’t put him in the same crowd as Magneto. Ock’s trying to achieve something to help people – all the people, not just the mutants.

Even though she thought it was silly to try, it was better than Magneto’s plot of wiping out normal people until mutants ruled the earth. Xavier had told her that Mags had lived to see his parents killed in the Holocaust but it didn’t make sense to be pissed about that and then go on to copy it over sixty years later.

A loud metallic screech startled her out of her musings. Ock was adjusting one of the four lighted rib-looking things of his machine. Leaning over, using two of the tentacles to shove the heavy structure, he was braced from behind by the bottom pair. His face was set in a grimace of effort.

Rooke rose from her chair and wandered closer to look at the device. The four giant ribs curved inward to face each other over a hole in the circular platform. The hole, for reasons that mystified her, surrounded a still pool of water. A set of controls on wheels waited nearby.

When he straightened, he caught her eye for a moment before looking away again. A random strafing of memories from the last night crowded in to plague her. His touch, his mouth – the marathon sex romps so steeped in heady feeling that she could almost forget her own name. With him, it was everything she’d always wanted it to be – but it wasn’t real.

He was nervous about her ability to see his memories as she dug them out of the wrack and ruin of his subconscious, and he obviously didn’t realize that she was an emotional participant every time he dragged her telepathic image deeper into his mind.

The warning she’d given – that willing dreams and memories to be real could hurt you, had already begun to torment her. She wore his wife’s face in his mind and stripping off the mask was probably already impossible. He was too strong and wanted Rosalie so badly.

Were you really such a gem, Rosie – or has he given you unearned sainthood? I never gave a damn about anyone much until you two stumbled across my path. Would you let him go if you could? I’d steal him if I could – but all he sees is you.

“Miss Dryden?”

“Huh?” She startled. He was standing right in front of her. “What?”

“It is ready.”

A twist of regret struck her. “You’re tired. Tomorrow’s a new day, do it then.” Let me have you for one more night.

“The program is set for a scaled down test. You’ll live to see breakfast.” He held out his right palm. The muzzles of two tentacles watched her a moment, and then one of them opened and its spike snapped out.

Rooke gave him her left forearm, shivering at the touch of his fingers. He muttered something mindless and reassuring. Did he think she was afraid of the Adamantium blade?

I have to get out of here; if this works and he has what he needs, maybe I’ll just leave and find some other way to get Mags. His fingers shifted, stroking along her skin as the blade cut into her metal. Tomorrow. As the pincers plucked the sample away, she caught and held his gaze. Tonight I’m going to drown in you.

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

Otto felt a shudder as he looked in her eyes. Does she intrude?

No. / We / do not / sense her.

“It may not be safe to remain.”

“I want to.”

He nodded and turned. “Do not approach the device.”

“You’re right next to it.”

Otto reached to touch one of the tentacles. “This is the original function of these actuators. They allow me to manipulate radioactive substances from a safe distance. You, however, happen to be one.”

“Um, yeah. Good point.”

It took no more than ten minutes for the Adamantium blades of two of the tentacles to carve the sample into the necessary shape and encase it inside the protective sphere he had developed with OSCORP.

Switching on the blue light overhead that would reflect from the pool beneath, reinforcing the containment field, Otto realized he was holding his breath.

He reached for his goggles, trying not to think of Rosie as he put them on. This had been the moment – the last time he had looked into her living eyes. Shaking his head to clear the distracting vision, he watched as the tentacle moved the fuel sample into place within the magnetic containment field. The small and roughly cut dodecahedron of gray metal hung in the air a moment before it began to spin inside the sphere.

Fingers poised over the controls, he tapped out the sequence of commands that would bombard the sample with sympathetic atomic frequencies and harmonic reinforcement. They struck in tandem with fiery light beams from the top and bottom of the four towers already engaged in creating the containment field, the beams crisscrossing in multiple x-patterns around the sample.

A hum and harmonic vibration filled the room – it was the music of his nightmares, the song of his dream.

The fusion bloomed in an instant into a perfect miniature sun within the clear bubble of magnetic force. Trembling, Otto released his breath. The tentacles were fully extended their twenty-four foot length, their mouths opened into the three-pronged hands, hovering around the containment field. The newborn fusion reactor had begun small, and then grew to the diameter of a basketball in moments, fed by the metal at its core.

“Hold it – it must not become unstable.”

It is stabilized, / with no / undesired / explosive response.

“Yes. The actinide is aiding in energy output and the anomalies are keeping it controlled.”

The / magnetism / is not / increasing.

“It is possible that the SmCo5 alloy may be counteracting it, drawing it inward.”

This / may / limit the / diameter.

“For the better, I think. The new design seems to be holding.”

Otto watched it, looking for the rubber band effect of explosive energy that had breached the containment field before. Yet the fiery orb retained its shape without spiking and its rotation didn’t seem to be producing a noticeable gravitational pull, either.

The readout showing the energy output was the final proof of success. A quick glance showed it registering a two thousand megawatt surplus: twice the power with a fraction of the original tritium fuel.

He had spent most of the last two years correcting the calculations that had destroyed his life and wreaked havoc in New York City. The results of this effort now hung before him – the fallen sun rising again.

~ ~ ~

The lab was dark. Otto sat in a heavy wooden chair he had turned backward. His forehead rested on his arms over the back of the chair. Behind him in the gloom, the tentacles worked like the actuators he had created them to be, checking the device over for any faults or stress problems.

A solitary light, soft and shifting, shone on the young woman’s face where she sat on the floor by his feet. It came from the computer screen that still displayed the corrected design.

“Are you – is everything okay?”

“Yes – for the first time in years. Thank you for your contribution.”

“Hey, no sweat – had it lying around.”

“It is more powerful than the original flawed design, with only a meager sample.”

“Why’d you turn it off?”

“It was a test. Now that it is working correctly, without the earlier problems of spikes and magnetism anomalies, it’s time to take the next step.” He raised his head to meet her eyes. “Octagon Industries must find a way to make use of the breakthrough without endangering its inventor.”

“Your pit bull lawyer can figure that out. He looks like he could eat glass and piss diesel.”

Shocked, Otto laughed aloud; this seemed to surprise her in turn. “I should take Yeats to heart.”

“Yeast?”

“Yeats, the poet. Something Rosie read to me that actually stuck, all things considered. He spoke of the pursuit of great things and how they can be torn down by others after you. He questioned whether those things were worth it when they’re often not realized in your own lifetime.”

“Cheerful guy … but I think I agree.”

The tentacles drew in closer slowly, their whispering voices giving their assessment. The device was sound.

“I’ve been able to think of little else beyond this. Now that it’s done, I’m not sure how to feel.”

She stood and slipped her fingers between his, tugging at them gently. “That can wait for breakfast. You should try to sleep.”

Otto allowed her to lead him away from the device. As they walked, one of the metal arms curled around her waist, its muzzle peering at her.

We want you / to stay. / You are good / for us.

“Convince him first,” she told it, “or he’ll defend himself.”

He allowed her to walk him to his bed, and then sent her upstairs. Otto listened to the elevator hum as it rose.

Sleep should have been impossible but he fell into it immediately. Expecting to dream of Rosie or of the reactor’s success, he was appalled to find himself in the grip of nightmares.

The operating room of Midtown Hospital was spread out around him, dotted with the broken bodies of doctors and nurses. Dr. Kevin Hunt lay on the floor beside the x-ray table. His blood was pooled and congealing on the fallen ghostly image of a spine infused with melted nanotech wire.

Otto woke with a start, his clothes damp with sweat. Afraid the dream would return, he rose and went to the elevator. Wary of waking his guest, he did his best to shower and move through the hall quietly. Leaving the clothes in a heap on the dressing room floor, he returned to his bed on the lab level wrapped in a thick robe.

“Maybe it’s time we called on Dr. Rosenberg again.”

Those humans / meant us harm. / There is no need / to dwell on their deaths.

“They were trying to help. They didn’t understand about us. Neither did I, yet.” He hung the robe over a chair and tried to lie comfortably on his stomach.

Dr. Rosenberg had begun his new post as resident neurologist by diagnosing him with a certain amount of brain damage, caused by the electrocution of the accident, which was also responsible for his neural pathways compensating for the new arms. His second electrocution fighting Spider-Man had no doubt exacerbated the problem. The neurologist was afraid of him, but talented.

We do / not need them. / She is better. / We will call for her.

“Can she block the nightmares permanently? She doesn’t intend to stay. I am always living through them too intensely. I’m there. I feel them dying … and Rosie – why did I have to find her there? You shouldn’t have let me see...”

We were / learning about you. / She was near. / We needed to see Her.

“Some things are learned at too high a cost.” He winced at the memory of the bloody blanket torn away by one of them and the body beneath. Her beautiful eyes had been bisected with glass, her body mangled with it. Exhausted, he closed his eyes. “I can’t face it again. Please ask her.”

She has / been waiting for us. / Sleep. / We will keep watch.

From the moment he tumbled back into dreams, the nightmare was swept away. Rosalie awaited him on the hillside, bathed in the perfume of heather. Her short slip was white. He swallowed his fears as she reached out to him, calling his name softly.

Drawing her into his arms, he felt the moisture of tears as they kissed but he didn’t know which of them was weeping.

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

Unable to shake the feeling that it could be the last time, Rooke threw caution to the wind. Making no attempt to hide in a memory he knew, she simply came to him on her own. She was reckless in keeping up the facade of Rosalie’s image and heedless of trying to mouth words the older woman might have spoken.

None of that mattered, of course. The man who crushed her in his arms saw, heard, and felt only what he expected and yearned for.

Exhaustion harried her, threatening to make her efforts weaken. She remained awake while joined with his dreaming mind and it had been weeks since she’d had a full night’s sleep.

His touch and his love built the frustration in her to an intolerant level. It was a dangerous time for dream spinning, for these and one other reason: her neutral feelings for Rosalie Octavius were souring into a hatred she barely understood.

The loft bedroom again – tangled sheets and untouched wine on the nightstand. She stroked the backs of her fingers down the side of his face and smiled into his dark eyes. The reactor works beautifully. You’ve corrected the mistakes – and now we can both be at peace.

You are my peace. He ducked his head and set his magnificent mouth to her breasts again.

I can’t stay forever, Otto. I came back to help you through this.

He looked up at her, startled – afraid … but something else answered her. She saw the tentacles as phantom images over his shoulders, their mouths set into threatening claws.

If you dare threaten, / we will break you. / Beware what / you do here.

Rooke sat up in the dark, surrounded by the soft sounds of the fountain behind her. In her mind, she felt the doctor’s confusion releasing her from his grip. The sensation of his touch faded. Tears rose in her eyes.

I can’t keep doing this, she told them. It’s tearing me up – but I don’t want to leave him tormented by her memory. Can’t I make him realize it’s over and he can move on without her? I’m not trying to hurt him – it will help.

We know She is gone. / We want to continue as he wants / to be with Her. / We allow you to bring Her but not to control our mind.

With a quick indrawn breath, Rooke stood. Help me then. You did it before. Help me and I’ll stay.

You must stay. We / need Her through you. / Help you if we can. / How?

Her hands curled into fists at her sides. She was trembling with fear and desire at once. Let me come down. Help me to be Rosie without a hitch. My telepathy is weak but you could strengthen the connection yourselves. Give me his body and I promise you I can keep him from wanting to die.

Come then but / care must be taken. / We can be controlled / against you.

I’ll be careful. He’s restless. Can you make him sleep more deeply?

Yesyesyesyes.

Rooke felt them soothe him in her mind as she pulled on her bathrobe and headed for the elevator.

Don’t forget to help me with Saint Rosie’s lines, or I’ll be up shit creek – er, I’ll be in trouble.

The lab was wrapped in darkness so thick that the light from the open elevator car barely showed any furniture or features at all. Hesitating, she felt her fear rise. Then a telltale gleam snapped on in the void before her. It was one of the tentacles, its spotlight showing the red joints of its open claws.

Moving quietly toward it, her hands out in front of her, she was led into the small sparse bedroom. The ratcheting sound of their movements in the gloom was eerie. As the light turned down onto Ock, she saw his naked broad back bisected by the metal of the wide artificial spine. The thick harness that encased his ribcage, supporting the back brace below his shoulder blades, housed the root of the tentacles. It was the first time she’d been able to see how they were connected to him.

His lower back was covered with a sliver of thick cloth padding before it came to a ragged edge and his flesh showed again. Was it what was left of a protective layer he’d worn originally, with the rest of it still trapped between the back brace and his skin? She knew the needles went all the way to the spinal cord.

With a shudder, she looked away from the metal. His lower back ended in a clump of white sheet she wanted badly to strip away. His face was hidden in folded arms and as her eyes swept over his back again, she noticed the bluish bruises around the metal and the charred appearance of the multiple knobs along it that had to be the ends of the needles.

“Oh, Otto – how horrid,” she whispered under her breath. “And I made you leap off after me like a brat.”

She stiffened when something touched her. Two of the tentacles had slipped up and taken the robe in their mouths at her shoulders. Rooke struck the loosely tied sash open as they pulled the cloth from her body.

Approaching him carefully, she intensified her mutant gifts in his mind, feeling the odd but firm strength the machines lent to her telepathy. She spun the scene of him working on the reactor before the accident back to the bedroom of the doctor’s former home.

Leading his thoughts to see himself lying in his bed on his stomach, she made him sense the smooth expanse of his unencumbered back. Biting her lip, she drew off the white sheet, inserting into his mind the soft navy linen sheets she had seen before in his dreams.

Rooke sat on the edge of his bed and stroked her fingers over his shoulder and down his arm. The longer hair at the back of his head tapered into a thick nest of sharp, shorter hairs grown out since the last haircut. The metal sensors on her fingertips registered the textures perfectly, making her smile.

Rosie?

I’m here, Otto.

His head rose as he moved like a sleepwalker, turning onto his side and reaching for her. She lay under his arm and let him move over her, watching the quick movements of his eyes under closed lids. Fear threatened again. Was he waking?

It is R.E.M. sleep, / the dreaming state. / We are at peace and / there is no danger.

Rosie... The doctor’s mind breathed the name like a prayer.

She drew his lips down to hers and felt the cerebral tug as his mind entangled itself in her gifts. When his lips brushed down her chest, the heat of the physical touch made her gasp. You are stunning, she thought, her lips moving as if she muttered the words into his hair, kissing the dark waves.

Thank yourself, my love, for teaching me how to please you.

Rooke was about to say something about scientists and limited shagging experience – but she was interrupted.

You were a / natural, / and a quick / study.

Well, he hedged, as his lips smiled against Rooke’s left nipple, this is a lot better than trying to learn T.S. Elliot.

Once I trained you / out of explaining / principles of nuclear / physics in bed, you became an expert.

Rooke’s smile turned wicked. He must have played these talks over and over in his head for them to know what to say. Even their tone changed slightly, attempting to mimic the memories – though they probably would only sound like his wife to him in dreams. The mind filled in a lot, especially when it wanted something to be a certain way. To her, they sounded as mechanical, chopped, and cold as ever.

It left her out of the conversation but she didn’t need to talk. As her bedmates continued their schizophrenic chat, she relaxed into the feel of his weight pinning her for a kiss or slipping down her body to lick at her pussy with exquisite skill.

The stamina of previous mental unions promised much but for now, his patience with foreplay began to unravel her senses. Lost in his tongue, lips, and fingers, she stopped listening to the words spoken around her.

Otto’s body covered hers again as she opened her legs to him, wrapping them around his waist. Anticipation and memory both paled when his cock pressed inside her. It was a tight and magnificent fit, inducing her to tremble deliciously as he thrust with a slow and easy strength.

Oh, God, she said, intruding on the telepathic circuitous link. Ock... Otto ... I could love you – I think I do.

Bewarebewaredonotbeware.

Playing coy, love? he answered her risky outburst. Shall I help you decide? Or would you prefer a recitation of the Theory of Relativity?

Trying not to panic, Rooke spun the dream stronger and let the machines answer him. Yet she couldn’t hold back an audible gasp when his thrusts quickened and his mouth covered her aching breasts with kisses.

She buried her hands in his thick hair and pulled his sensuous lips to hers. His deep chuckle sounded in her ear when she broke the kiss to breathe. Then he began to lick her ear, following its whorls with the tip of his tongue.

He spoke but she didn’t listen. The tentacles answered him as Rooke’s mind was swept away, numbed by all that he did to her body. Her orgasm shocked her with its intensity but she knew it would only be the first of many as he paced himself to bring her there over and over long before allowing himself his first release.

~ ~ ~

It was everything she had seen in his dreams – except being with him, having him, was sinking a need into her bones worse than any drug she’d ever tried.

Would it be dawn soon? She had to be gone when he woke but she couldn’t think – couldn’t do anything but feel.

As he entered her again, only twenty minutes of mind-mangling oral stimulus later, she knew he would make this one faster, more intense. Later, as they tired, it would be slow and romantic again and she would forget her name and his, as the ecstasy took her and changed her forever.

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

Otto settled on his back, tired and drowsy, as Rosie laid her head on his shoulder. Her fingers stroked a nipple, her arm across his broad chest, as she sighed.

Maybe we should / declare tomorrow a day off. / It’s been a month since you / took a real break.

He smiled and kissed her hair. I can’t. I have to run the final test on the actuators. It’s only a few weeks to the day.

You won’t have had / any sleep, Otto. You’ll / fall over. / Rest. Tell them I insisted.

I’ll be fine, love. A night in your arms is ... better than tired eyelids on tired eyes.

Her laughter filled his soul with joy. Tennyson! You sly thing. / Cribbing lines to woo me over again – / but I can’t be in love with you more / than I am already.

Remember the evening I called you from the Atomic Research Center and couldn’t say anything? I survived graduate school but choked on the phone. A doctorate on the wall doesn’t prepare a man to speak to a woman.

I knew it was you instantly / and you thawed after I asked / about your project. I didn’t understand a word but / at least it got you talking.

And here we are still. The hapless boy from Schenectady, New York makes good. His smile faltered as memories of home and childhood intruded.

That boy is about / to change the world – / for everyone. / Otto? What’s wrong?

Torbert and Mary Octavius will never know.

Your mother expected you to do / great things and you are. / Don’t think about him. He would never have / understood a man like you.

Otto slipped down to lay his head on her chest, feeling her arms hold him as he closed his eyes. Strange, isn’t it? He hated any show of weakness or sentimentality. To allow myself to be bullied was a punishable affront.

Her lips brushed his brow. Taking a belt to a / five year old like that / wasn’t punishment, Otto. / It was abuse.

Yet he taught me everything about hard work and that has helped me achieve a lot. He grunted. Of course, I stopped being a chubby weakling a while ago.

She chuckled, stroking his broad shoulders and heavy, muscled arms and chest. Definitely. When I first saw you, / I thought you had to be / visiting from some football college. / Until you spoke.

Her touch inflamed him only slightly more than her words. With one smooth movement, he rolled over her and held her face as he kissed her. She opened to him utterly, mouth, body, and soul.

He didn’t know how other women loved but it had never mattered. Rosie’s hunger matched his and her strength as she held him was a surprise and a delight, even after all of their years together.

The haunting thoughts of the past faded as they entwined again. He didn’t know what time it was but that didn’t matter, either. He hadn’t lied, borrowing the poet’s sentiments. Losing himself in her was more restful and calming than sleep – whether they were quick and a little deliciously rough or easy and languid as he took her now.

She cried out and clutched at his back, setting off a deep stabbing pain inside. The shock of it stole his breath. Had she cut him with a fingernail?

Oh, I’m sorry – I forgot.

Donotspeakdonotbeware!

What? He paused and looked in her bright hazel eyes. They seemed to flicker and darken. Rosalie, what is wrong?

Did I hurt you? / I’m sorry. / Maybe we’re / both tired.

Otto smiled. The last time you did that you weren’t tired but it was a bit gentler.

He bent to kiss her and drew back in confusion. His fingers reached to touch her lower lip as her limbs wound around him tightly again.

The rose-blush of her lips was warm and yielding, until his finger struck a ring of metal.

Otto? Please...

She changed beneath him, her refined dusky Italian beauty morphing into a slight, pale form. The hair lightened as hazel eyes turned black.

“You... How … how dare you!”

He reached in his mind for the metal arms she had subjugated, wrenching them from her control as he tore his body away from hers in horror. The abrupt movement made him stumble and he almost fell. The tentacles caught him.

The girl cried out as he regained his balance. When he met her gaze, she was scrambling to cover herself.

A black rage filled his mind as reality crashed over his senses. It had felt so real because it was. His stomach lurched as his hands curled into fists.

Violation, betrayal … why?

I was trying to help –

“No! Enough lies!”

His fists punched forward but it was the upper tentacles that struck, guided by his hands. The headboard of the heavy bed splintered into kindling as she screamed and threw herself toward the door. The metal claws pursued her, telescoping out to catch her against the wall.

Both wrists held and half-crushed in one claw, he struck out with another, smashing the twin black stones in her palms. The cry she made was high and terrible but he barely heard it. Another tentacle caught the legs as she tried to kick him. With a muffled crunch, they were snapped.

The arms threw her across the bed where she landed in an explosion of sparks. He stalked around it, intent on pulling her apart.

“Oh, God, oh God, no...” She attempted to pull herself under the bed but one of the tentacles lifted it, hurling it out across the lab to smash near the elevator. “Otto, please!”

His rage wanted nothing but her death. Retracting the claws into their ball form, he sent them smashing into her body. Even as he watched, looking for an opening to grab her and pull, the metal in her shifted. The cybernetics had repaired the components that allowed her to move and feel touch, restored the breaks in her legs. The hissing sparks over the white lights on her chest replicated the lights before they could fully dim.

A cry of frustration ripped from his throat as she rose and stumbled around him. He tried to grab her but the metal arms were too slow. Was she still influencing them?

“Where will you go that I can’t find you?” He used the tentacles to propel him after her faster than his body could move. “I will hunt you down – tear you apart!”

She fell into the elevator car, fingers fumbling over the controls. Without a word, her face a mask of terror, she shrank back against the far wall.

The tentacles reached out and grabbed the doors as they began to close. They ripped them away but the car shot upward, sparking and setting off alarms throughout the building.

“No!” he screamed, human and mechanical arms rising in entreaty as his body buckled. He fell sharply to his knees and pitched forward. Fists of flesh and metal struck the cold concrete but only the flesh tore and bled. “How could you! I trusted... Rosalie – oh God, no...”

Chapter Text

I am the Dark One, the Widower, the unconsoled
The prince of Aquitaine whose Tower is abolished
My sole Star is dead, and my constellated Luth
Bear the Black sun of Melancholy

In the night of the Vault, You who comforted me
Surrender me the Pausilippe and the sea of Italy
The flower which pleased my bleeding heart too much
And the trellised vine where the Vine Branch allies the Rose

And I have two times vanquished and been through Archeron
Modulating in turn on Orpheus’s lyre
The whispers from the Saint and the screams from the Fay

~ Lines from Je Suis Le Ténébreux (Gérard de Nerval)

By too severe a fate
Fallen, fallen, fallen, fallen
Fallen from his high estate
And weltering in his blood
Deserted, at his utmost need
By those his former bounty fed
On the bare earth exposed he lies
With not a friend to close his eyes

~ Lines from Alexander’s Feast (John Dryden)

Take them by the hand
lead them to the light
lift them to be healed
in soft and cleansing night
Believe in change
the song the siren sings
but toss them up
to catch the wind
and they fall like
broken things

~ Broken Things (W.R.R.)

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

His mind spun through the wreckage, trying vainly to stop the flow of madness. Cold concrete against his cheek prodded memory, as the others strove to make him rise.

You said it wasn’t possible, that she couldn’t control our mind. I know machines don’t love – can you lie?

We seek to continue. / Your capacity / for emotion puts / all at risk.

My God – you aided the wretch? Helped her … to rape my mind as well as my body.

It was a compromise, / a way for all to survive / together. Foolish to claim / such injury.

Damn you... If I could rip you out of my mind, I would tear out my spine to be free of you.

They are waiting / for us above. / Come. / We will not allow this.

He tried to resist but his grasp on controlling their mind was gone. From the moment he’d raised them against him, they had fought him. It was the same every time, from the depths of the East River, to the trail of blood that dripped from his left arm as they lifted him off of his feet and carried him to the ruined elevator.

Balfour met him on the medical floor with a thick and soft white wool blanket, wrapping it around his hips before the metal arms propelled him to the operating room where Rucker and the doctors waited. He was lifted again to sit on the steel table.

The lawyer and the neurosurgeon stood ready to assist as Dr. Roznovsky, chief of Otto’s surgical staff, tended to the puncture through the meat of the forearm.

“What stabbed him, Mr. Rucker?” the surgeon asked. “One of them?” His distaste implied the tentacles.

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“He’ll need saline irrigation first, Dr. Rosenberg, if you would. Then we’ll see what’s best. Who called in the emergency? Of course,” he replied to a gesture Otto didn’t see. “Dr. Octavius, do you understand me, sir?”

Otto nodded slowly once without looking up but he knew what the man wanted. “They won’t interfere,” he whispered. All four of the tentacles were ranged out on the floor behind him, lending him support.

The surgeon picked up his injured arm gently as the neurosurgeon assisted him, bringing over a small basin full of a clear liquid and a 50cc irrigation syringe.

“We’re going to flush the puncture and put on a temporary dressing. I’ll administer a tetanus shot, and then we’ll need to take X-rays. Do you feel able to walk or will they help you?” Dr. Roznovsky smiled when he nodded. “Either way, sir. Just keep them under control and out of the way and this won’t take long. We’ll give you something for pain in a moment.”

Otto ignored them all. The haze of rage had slipped under the strong pull of the old despair, which numbed him more than any drug. Yet when the saline was shot through the wound, he hissed. One of the tentacles rose behind his head to watch them. The men paused, nervous.

You wanted to drag us up here. Kill these men and we might have a chance to bleed to death.

We will watch, / nothing more. / If they assist, / they will not be harmed.

“Perhaps something for pain now,” Dr. Rosenberg muttered. He took the basin away and drew up a local anesthetic, handing the syringe to the other surgeon.

“What’s that?” Rucker asked. “He can’t be knocked out or these damn things get dodgy.”

“5cc of a 1% lidocaine solution – he will remain conscious.” Dr. Roznovsky began a series of subcutaneous injections at a forty-five degree angle around the wounds on either side of the arm. “It will numb the area in a few minutes, and then we can proceed.”

Otto expected the lidocaine to burn and spent his failing energy in concentration on the tentacles. Five minutes later, when the surgeon gave his forearm a light thump with his finger, he couldn’t feel the touch. He watched listlessly as the practiced hands covered the holes with dressings and secured them with Kerlix gauze wrap.

The surgeon told him everything he was doing before he did it as a self-preservation precaution. As he administered the tetanus shot in his deltoid muscle, the other doctor recorded the vaccine’s serial number on Otto’s well-marked chart.

Balfour’s bare feet appeared in his view when the young man slumped in a chair in his pajamas, holding one of the customized bathrobes. He might have tried to sign to him but Otto didn’t lift his eyes.

Staring down at his lap, he watched the wet pattern of saturated blood that had ruined the blanket, shivering from both cold and memories. He studied the bloodstains, seeking Rorschach images that might help him cling to sanity.

Dr. Roznovsky touched his shoulder. “Step down, please, sir.” Waving the young man forward, he added, “Mr. Balfour, let’s have that robe.”

The gesture was enough for the servant. Otto’s senses twisted as he fought off dizziness. The hands that helped divest him of the blanket and don the robe were warm and careful, but the movements of the tentacles through the back of it pulled at him with a deep pain.

Rucker steadied him as they resettled around them on the floor. Balfour’s face was troubled as he came around to tie the sash. They had cut the left sleeve at the bicep.

“We have to be sure nothing is broken, sir,” the doctor told him in a patient voice. “I’ll use a radius/ulna X-ray. There’s no fear of stray metal in the wound with Adamantium, of course, but you could have damaged bones.”

“Back away,” Otto whispered.

They didn’t hesitate. The tentacles scarred the stone tiles as they carried him into X-ray. The pressure of his full weight on the harness took his breath away and sometime during the process he blacked out for a moment. He regained consciousness in a chair beside the X-ray machine. Rucker’s voice had asked something.

“It’s a clean, straight puncture, no damage to the bones. However, the muscle will be healing a while,” Dr. Roznovsky announced. “Dr. Octavius? I need you back in OR, sir.”

He didn’t move at all. The tentacles lifted him and returned him to the operating table. He sat on it quietly. Balfour had taken the blanket away and was probably up in the penthouse readying the place for his arrival. They would put him in the Water Room, where she had slept. Would Balfour clear out her things?

“Otto?” The lawyer touched his right shoulder. “Are you with us?” He looked at the surgeon. “Will you stitch it?”

“No. The puncture is not repairable by suture. I’m going to irrigate it again, and then dress it. I’ll have a sling for you, Dr. Octavius. You’re too industrious to remember to leave the arm to rest otherwise.”

They worked in silence as he observed them. One of the tentacles still hovered overhead and the dual view as it fed its ocular data into his mind didn’t help his disorientation.

The man who often restored his body spoke to the man who had just begun to tend to his brain. “How did you find his mind, Doctor?”

Dr. Rosenberg’s voice was hesitant but the calm of the other surgeon soon put him at ease. Dr. Roznovsky had been treating Otto longer than anyone.

“He’s a remarkable subject for how well he survived the initial accident. Most such injuries disconnect the spinal cord from the brain in varying degrees, with some neuronal pathways remaining intact. Recovery depends on the utilization of the surviving connections. Mr. Ollre – ah, Dr. Octavius – has increased the number of new pathways to incorporate these, ah, extra limbs, over what was lost.”

“You made use of the new MRI, then?”

“Yes. I applied a combination of MRI, co-registered, with high-resolution EEG, non-invasively, of course, to map the brain’s movement control network – with a series of active and passive movement tests. There was a change in the control of voluntary movements of the extremities by the cerebral cortex, as is often the case. Activation of his motor cortex is originating from the posterior of the brain, rather than the normal controls, which is also common.”

“I wouldn’t call anything about this man ‘common’, Doctor,” Rucker commented.

“Oh, certainly not. The precise way in which the reorganization of motor pathways occurred in conjunction with the addition of the new pathways for the arms … is quite simply astounding and elusive to determine. I could spend my life studying it and perhaps never truly discover how it was accomplished.”

The lawyer’s voice was cold. “I would rather discover a way to keep him stabilized.”

~ ~ ~

It was the Water Room. Would he see her if he opened his eyes? Someone stood beside the wall of glass at the farthest point possible from him.

“Are you awake, Otto?” It was Hollis Rucker’s voice and there was trouble of some sort.

“Where is she?”

“Under a rock or in a dumpster, I hope. The records are updated – she can’t harass you anymore.” The man sighed. “Someday, you might trust me enough to listen when I give you advice.”

“What else is wrong?”

“The leading press release is out – ‘Ollre completes Dr. Octavius’s project’. It’s all gone well, and the media bought it as fast as the scientific community. We’ve only just this morning hit a snag. His name is Parker.”

Otto opened his eyes, squinting in the bright sun as he looked at his lawyer.

Rucker frowned back at him. “He keeps calling from New York, asking to speak to Mr. Ollre, even in a teleconference with a legal team. He claims to be a friend of the late Dr. Octavius and for the record, I advise against it.”

“When he calls again, put it though. I’ll take it in my office, in private.”

The lawyer sighed. “He’s connected with the Daily Bugle.”

“I know.” He rubbed at the white bandages that were wrapped up his left forearm. The arm was in a sling. “Hollis – if the girl attempts to return … see that she fails.”

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

Rooke had run mindlessly, driven away more by his horror and rage than the violence he’d dealt her. The damage was repaired as she ran but she couldn’t escape the fear that he might come after her at any moment.

Chicago didn’t make it easy on fugitives. The night was cold with a frightening wind sending torrents of rain against her naked and sparking body. She kept moving, away from the Loop and straight into one of the run-down and dangerous neighborhoods that always offered shelter in abandoned buildings.

Food and other comforts might be harder to come by in weather like this but she couldn’t think past a roof and getting out of the weather.

Then an alley that should have yielded accessible hidey-holes turned into a dead end. A sob escaped her lips as she crouched between a metal dumpster and a brick wall. How had she gotten turned around?

Footsteps. She tensed and resisted the urge to look but using her telepathy almost hurt. It felt like Ock’s rage had scorched her brain. Motion sensors were no help – they didn’t tell you anything more than that something was there. The only thing she was sure of was that it couldn’t be Ock – there was only one mind.

What are you – and can I use you to get out of this shit? Please, she begged, not certain to whom she prayed. God? Spiral? Don’t let it be a cop. Give me a mush brain I can manipulate easy. I’ll even take a crystal freak, I don’t care.

Reaching out carefully with her telepathy, she almost cursed. It wasn’t impenetrable but the mind was too strong for her to fiddle with by far. Stifling another sob, she abruptly realized the cadence of the thoughts was vaguely familiar. Fear made her wince.

Not Ock. You’d hear him coming a block away, idiot. The man’s a bloody hydra, too. Yet the feeling persisted – it was someone she’d tried to play with before. Who?

Risking a peek, she saw the heavy silhouette standing in the center of the alley, ignoring the rain and without a doubt watching her. Rooke shrank into herself, her arms around her legs, shuddering as she sat in the dirty rainwater. The figure was holding a set of gleaming metal knives in his right hand and the mind wasn’t one she could argue with or alter.

Go ahead and kill me, if you can. Save Ock the bother. Lowering her forehead to her knees, she heard a strangely familiar sound.

~Snakt.~

The rain drummed down on them both, making a hideous racket on the metal dumpster overhead. When the intruder came closer and knelt to peer at her, she winced but didn’t try to escape.

Then he spoke and she feared she might faint. “Gotta admit, darlin’ – expected ya t’ do a bit better’n this with what we taught ya.”

“Wolvie?” She uncurled without a care and reached out for him but by the time the X-Man picked her up, she had fainted.

~ ~ ~

Rooke slept fitfully, her mind full of nightmares. The pain of the tank and the crushing blows of the tentacles combined but she was hooked into the tank, unable to escape. The shimmering and shifting image of Ock, tall and menacing through the glass wall and fluid, paced in impatience for her body to repair, eager to be able to break her again.

You called me a rapist... Ock – Otto ... I was trying to help, both of us. Why can’t you give her up? You hate me now, don’t you? So it was all for nothing...

She woke with tears running down her face. The ceiling was graying with a spreading water stain in one corner by the bathroom doorway. There was a slight mold smell and a scent of dust.

No-tell Motel – not the best, not one of the piss-drenched rat holes, either. Where is Wolverine?

She sat up with ease, everything having repaired itself long ago. A peek under the blankets told her she was still nude – but clean, warm, and dry.

Looking across the tiny room revealed the X-Man sitting at a small table by the rattling heating unit. He wasn’t in uniform. His jeans were faded and tight, the worn biker boots resting on the next chair. His hairy torso was covered by a white undershirt that stretched over the barrel chest. A dripping leather jacket hung from a hook on the back of the door.

As she watched him, she pulled her feet up to sit Indian-style, holding herself to hide a shudder. He was studying the mouth of the whiskey bottle in his hand, one thumb toying with its ragged label.

If she’d ever been happier to see those mutton chop sideburns and wild black hair, she couldn’t remember it. “Hi, Wolvie. Thanks for the rescue. Again.”

The blue eyes that turned to her looked like jewels but the smile on his lips didn’t light them as it always had before. “All in a night’s work, pun’kin.” He took a long pull on the bottle. “Anyone in particular chase ya down that alley? Needs a lesson in manners an’ I’m more’n willin’ t’ ‘blige ‘em.”

“It’s a long story.”

“I got time.”

Rooke smiled. He always made things so simple – but she couldn’t tell him this tale. “I – put my ass in a sling myself. Don’t act surprised just to make me feel better.”

“Wasn’t plannin’ t’.” He took his boots off of the chair to turn and face her. “Got me curious, though. Scents on ya yesterday painted quite a picture.”

“Yesterday?”

“Been sleepin’ ‘round tha clock, darlin’; it’s after six, next evenin’.”

“Oh.” She sighed. Abruptly, she had to try not to cry. “I don’t suppose you’d be up to keeping me company? Help a girl chase away the blues?”

“I am keepin’ ya comp’ny, from over here.”

“I could spin something entertaining –”

“Don’t start.” He stood and peered out between the closed curtains, moving them with the neck of the bottle. “Just relax an’ lemme play Uncle Logan. When ya turn eighteen ya can try again.”

“If I do – if I even can. Do I look a day older than last time?”

“Nope.” Facing her, he was silent a moment before pointing to the bathroom. “Got ya some clothes this mornin’.”

“Thanks, Uncle Logan.” She patted the bed beside her. “I’ll be good, I promise.”

The expression on his face told her his opinion of her promises but he moved to her side anyway. Leaning against the headboard, he crossed his ankles on the bed and let her snuggle up. When she reached for the whiskey, he surrendered it without a word.

“Who’d ya run int’ sportin’ Adamantium? It’s a select club.”

“If I tell you, will you rush off and fuck him up to defend my honor?”

“Maybe, dependin’ on ‘is crime – but I know ya well ‘nuff t’ know ya mighta earned tha boot. Don’t approve o’ tha method, that’s all.”

“Being sans clothes was my fault, too. I was dream spinning, with permission, but he – didn’t like my take on our boundaries.”

“Goin’ t’ play ‘I gotta secret’, huh? Yer call – but if ya need tha ol’ Canucklehead t’ weigh in, give tha word.”

She laid her head on his chest and sighed. “I wish I could – but not this one.”

“Really screwed up this time, pun’kin? Pissed off a man ya wanna keep?”

“What makes you think that?”

“Ya sound like me. Not used t’ ya givin’ a damn ‘nuff t’ be wistful.”

“I’ll ask about the latest X tragedy if you want me too.”

“No, darlin’ – don’t wanna jaw ‘bout that. Same shit, diff’rent day, right?”

Rooke smiled. “Jean should pull her head out of her ass. You beat Cyke hands down, even if you are short.”

“Leave it,” he whispered, without heat. He sounded tired. “So someone cracked yer ribcage open an’ found a heart, huh? Stole it on tha spot? Then ya pushed it an’ got pitched ass over tea kettle int’ tha storm.”

“Sort of. Reader’s Digest version, I guess … but he’s not interested in me. He just wanted me to play his dead wife in his dreams. He used my telepathy to suck me in – but he didn’t realize he was doing it. Mr. Shy and Private would rather I couldn’t see the dreams at all. After a while, I got sick of phantom sex and snuck downstairs.” She sniffed. “He was so angry. He called me a rapist...”

“So he was pissed when he woke up an’ found ya in ‘is saddle? Can’t blame ‘im. That is rape. Ya didn’t hear ‘im say, ‘yeah, fuck me, Rooke’ while he was awake, did ya?”

“No…”

He sighed. “Maybe ya shouldn’t take up with someone who doesn’t want ya fer who ya are. Ya def can’t be tryin’ t’ screw a guy who doesn’t want ya, period … ‘is reasons why he don’t – that ain’t even yer biz.”

She huffed out a breath. “No one ever made me feel like that. I didn’t know sex could be that way.”

“If yer jacked int’ ‘is need fer someone he lost, yer gettin’ some other woman’s fun, darlin’. If ya could talk ‘im int’ bed with ya legit, it’d be a diff’rent sorta sack romp – unless he loved ya.”

“I was hoping I could –”

“Ya can’t.” His low growl overhead startled her. “Rooke, ya gotta understand this. Learn it. Some people love certain people. Ya can’t change how they feel no matter what ya feel or what ya want … an’ ya shouldn’t try. They got as much right t’ how they feel as ya do an’ forcin’ ‘em ain’t right – it’s … sickenin’.”

“But she’s dead, Wolvie! What’s the point? He can’t dig her up. Move on, damn it!” She drew in a sharp breath as she felt a stab of pain leak from his closed mind. He started to dislodge her and rise but she clung to him tightly. “I’m sorry! I forgot!” The tears came in an instant. When she felt him hold her gently, they turned into sobs.

“Hate t’ see ya in pain, pun’kin,” he whispered, kissing her hair, “but some o’ us feel too strongly, love too much. Losin’ ‘em – ‘specially if it’s a shock or violence, it feels unfinished an’ it haunts ya ... sometimes forever. Don’t waste yer time gettin’ hurt by a man who’s married t’ death; find a lover who’s in love with ya.”

“I didn’t mean to say that... I loved hearing about Mariko. You had … you both...”

“What Mi’ko-chan an’ I had can never be replaced.” He put a fingertip under her chin and made her look up at him. “Thing is, sometimes ya can find somethin’ new, that’s diff’rent ‘nuff ... an’ it can be as good.” He looked down at her with a sad smile. “Just try not t’ fall fer someone new who’s also married.”

~ ~ ~

They stood in silence as the rain turned into random drops around them, making the puddles on the asphalt shimmer in the weak morning light.

When he asked her to return with him to Westchester again, she almost did it, but it wasn’t the life she wanted and they both knew it. He was offering a safe place to land, until she sorted out her situation, and she loved him for it – but the X-Men would expect her to tow the line if she went back. They didn’t approve of her revenge gig, either – unlike Wolverine, who had his own reasons for hating Magneto.

He’d brought her black leather pants and boots, a Stevie Ray Vaughn t-shirt, and a black leather trench coat. Every bit of it fit perfectly, including the underthings. The notion that he knew all of those sizes was amusing but she didn’t need to ask why – she had never had any trouble fitting Jean’s clothes whenever she’d ‘borrowed’ them.

“Very Matrix – I like.”

He shrugged and grinned as he lit a cigar. “Any woman taller than me looks good in leather.”

“I’m as tall as Jean. We’d weigh about the same, too. If you change your mind...”

“Never mind tha seventy extra pounds o’ lead in yer butt, pun’kin.”

“Pot calling the kettle black, ‘Weapon X’?”

He just smiled. “Ya change yer mind, ya know where I hang my hat. Between tha two o’ us, we’d drive Chuck int’ a nuthouse in a week. Could be fun.”

“Would be – but I can’t.” Rooke hugged him close, tucking her chin over his shoulder. “Thanks for everything, Wolvie.”

“Anytime. What’re ya plannin’ on doin’ now?” He pulled back to look up at her.

“Something daring, adventurous, and a little insane.”

“That’s my girl.” Then he eyed her with suspicion. “Not tryin’ fer Mags again, I hope? Hell, I put ‘im in a wheelchair in Genosha not long ago. With any luck, he’s still in it but make no mistake – tha man can still paste ya. That’s just one o’ tha drawbacks t’ bein’ stuffed full o’ metal.”

“A wheelchair? Way to steal my thunder but I guess I could call it an all-too-fair advantage – a ‘glass half full’ sort of thing. No, I’m not making a play for him again – not just yet. There’s a tougher nut I need to crack first.”

“Loverboy?” he asked with a sigh. When she nodded, he added, “Well, it’s yer life but try t’ remember ya deserve better than table scraps, pun’kin. Don’t ever let any man make ya ‘is dog – or ‘is punchin’ bag. Just cuz we heal fast don’t mean it can’t still hurt on tha inside, right?”

“Right.”

“Try t’ lay off puttin’ a sex whammy on tha unwillin’ while yer at it, huh? That shit ain’t tha way t’ make friends o’ any stripe. Tellin’ ya this t’ spare ya pain an’ trouble, got it?”

“I got it.” She hugged him again impulsively. “I love you, Uncle Logan – and I’m just starting to figure out what that really means.”

“Then tha fight’s half won, darlin’.”

She watched as he walked away to the red Harley in the motel parking lot. It roared to life, the racket of the motor splitting the morning. Tossing her a salute as he turned into the road, he drove away, heading for home.

Rooke put her hands in the pockets of her new trench coat and felt a folded square of leather. Pulling out the brand new wallet, she found over $500 tucked inside it.

You are the best, Wolvie. Thank you.

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

Otto sat in the dark lab spotlighted by the actuators around him. The glass vial full of the powered sample shook slightly in his hand as he pulled the stopper out. A few drops of blood fell over the bandages he’d cut away and left on the floor.

If it doesn’t / have the desired /effect, you must / abandon this plan.

“What, no concern it will poison our blood?”

She lived with / this metal. We / proved it is not toxic. / The anomalies prevent adverse effects.

“Anomalies...” She hadn’t decided on names for the unknown elements. Suppressing a shiver, he pushed her from his thoughts. “I must heal. There is much to do.”

Tipping the vial to the edge of the puncture wound, he watched the gray powdered metal tumble in. He held his breath, half expecting pain. Would it work? Had it been calibrated somehow to her specifically or would it perform its intended function for any damaged flesh?

Yes. / It moves, bonds, / draws the wound / together.

Otto gasped. A vague pain had crystallized into concentrated agony in seconds. Yet the wound was closing – the metal spreading through the tissues, knitting them together on a scale the naked eye couldn’t hope to observe.

When it finished, he turned the arm over and back again to inspect it. Only twin gray-etched circular scars remained, one on either side of his forearm. The pain lessened to a dull ache that might not abate – but the limb had regained full function.

“I wish we could replicate this composite alloy. With sufficient testing, it could revolutionize current surgical practices.” He put his left palm down on the counter and rose with his full weight on the arm. “Amazing.” His gaze fell on the bandages. “Nevertheless, one global miracle at a time.”

Will we hunt her, bring her back, / to have Her? / Though it would be better to live without dreams. / We have the fuel source. If her death is desired –

Otto closed his eyes. “I have a duty to a friend – a debt I must pay. Afterward... I don’t know.”

They lifted around him as he returned to the elevator. The new doors closed and he tried not to think as the car rose to the garage level. The limo waited to take him to the helicopter.

What will I say when Peter knows it is me? Perhaps I should try to keep out of sight – but how can I help him with this black suit, this alien substance, from the shadows? He didn’t say anything about it but the news reports from New York said enough and I could hear the desperation in his voice. Such a young man to bear this burden – he shouldn’t bear it alone.

He ignored the cold expression on the lawyer’s face when he opened the door for him. As the limo pulled out into the dim Chicago streets, the wind beat against the glass like a living thing.

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

West Taylor Street was deserted, whipped by the strong freezing wind that threatened to bring rain at any moment. Rooke strode confidently up to the University of Illinois Science Library ahead of her reluctant companion.

“Do you want to get wet?” she asked him.

The slight man shivered in his heavy coat as he hurried to catch up with her. “I don’t know that they won’t find this highly unusual...”

“Don’t be silly, Prof. It’s not that late and I really need that report.” She smiled and gripped his coat front as he joined her, looking up at him adoringly. “I said how grateful I’d be.” Her words almost purred at him.

“What class on Tuesdays did you say you take Physics? I’ve never heard Professor Simmons mention you.”

“After Chemistry. He adores me but maybe he’s got a guilty conscience. Come on.”

As she had assumed, security gave no trouble to the faculty member returning for a lost report his student needed. They barely glanced at her as she walked into the building at Professor Greer’s side.

Moving him to the same bank of computers she had used before to investigate Ock, she picked up a random heavily doodled piece of printer paper from the floor, hugging it quickly to her chest.

“Here it is! Oh, you’re the best. I was afraid someone might nick it or throw it away.”

“Excellent,” he said, glancing nervously around. “We should go. If you wanted – if you were serious – I have to be home before ten,” he finished quickly, his face trying to pale and blush at once.

“Got a strict warden, huh?” she asked, trying to sound sympathetic. “Why go? It’s raining now.” She moved behind him, pulled out a chair, and gently pushed him down onto it in front of one of the monitors. They could hear the weather gearing up outside and a distant narrow window showed a waterfall beyond. “We could do it right here.”

“They patrol...” His voice faded in fear, the terror of being caught making him appear even younger than his thirty-something years.

“Yeah, I know.” She leaned down and licked his ear. “Nothing turns me on faster than a brain, Prof. You just sit here and look like you’re surfing the ‘net or the files or something. I’ll slip under the desk and turn your life inside out.”

“Well, I – wouldn’t it be better if...”

“And risk the warden’s wrath? Hell hath no fury like a frigid wife scorned.” Rooke slipped her gloved fingers into his hair and smiled when he turned on the computer. “If you want them to think you’re really busy, you could look up some things for me – for the footnotes. You don’t mind helping me, do you? It’s not cheating, I’m not even one of your students. Simmons doesn’t need to know, either – anymore than your wife does.”

“Footnotes?” Greer sounded dazed.

“The Octagon Industries building – find out if there are other ways to access the basement floors. Utility tunnels, sewers, anything.”

“There are no basement floors in that building, beyond the parking garage’s lower level. My ... wife, she works for one of the contractors who built it.”

“I know – I mean, you said that, when I mentioned the subject of my report.”

“You aren’t after that ridiculous reward the Enquirer is offering, are you? Ollre is about to change the world where others failed – he deserves respect, not young people snooping into his private business.”

“Of course not. My report is trying to prove that the building might not be safe – too much load on the street, might topple and take the next city block with it, that sort of thing.”

“What has that got to do with the Physics essay? Professor Simmons told me –”

“Prof, do you want to argue about doddering old Professor Simmons or do you want to help flesh out my footnotes while I crawl under the desk and make you forget your wife’s name?”

With a twitch, he started whipping his fingers over the keyboard. Rooke grinned as she stood behind him. Lust made mind control so simple and wives who had headaches too often made very susceptible victims out of their husbands, no matter how intelligent or prone to do the right thing they might be.

Rooke hadn’t even used telepathy on him that much. Stealing information and images from his mind as she haunted the campus all day, she had discovered a lot more than his ability to find out what she needed to know quickly. He was starving for female attention, terribly jealous of rumors that Simmons had a lover among his students, and most important, he had the sort of mind that was easy for her to manipulate.

As he got connected to the internet, she did tweak her telepathy in his brain a little – reminding him of his rebellious youth and the treasured memories of being a maverick once in this very school. He’d been a computer hacker of decent abilities among his varied scientific talents, though the machines had changed a lot more than he had in the intervening years. It was a golden time of precious memories to him and led him more easily into the sort of snooping he’d need to use to get the information.

Kissing him on the cheek, she gave him an alluring smile and slipped down to the floor to crawl under the desk between his feet.

Telepathy was harder to use this way, in spite of his malleable brains and she wished she could have relied on her dream spinning instead.

It’d be simpler to just go ahead and blow the geek, she thought, frowning at herself. Simpler or not, her stomach turned at the idea. Not Professor Greer’s fault, he wasn’t gross, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Being true to the crazy man who wants to kill you? she scoffed. Gone mental. All the way around the bend, without brakes.

Sighing, she leaned forward and opened the man’s belt and zipper. Yet when he felt her fulfill her promise, it was all in his mind – the replayed memory of a high school date, when a girl he still felt for had done this in return for help with passing some science test. She had rooted the memory out in the commons, as he had paused to watch two students kissing on a bench.

Monitoring his thoughts, she smiled when he eventually found what she needed. With a gentle push, she induced him to print out the information. When the noise of the distant communal printer stopped, Rooke crawled out from under the desk moments after his X-rated memory finished. It was the high school girl who put him back in his pants but he blushed when he watched her emerge, and then fumbled with his zipper. His efforts to keep quiet had been Herculean.

She walked off and pulled the pages, five in all, from the printer and smiled. Would the wife find out he had sticky underpants before he did? Probably not. She didn’t seem to have had any interest in them for the last six years. A memory of Ock with Rosie froze her. They had been married twice as long as this man but had a night gone by when they hadn’t...?

“Is it –? Will it help your report?”

Rooke turned to face him. He was blushing fiercely now. “Huh? Oh, yeah, you’re the best, Prof. Tasty, too.”

He scurried to lead the way out after that statement, as she knew he would. The pair of security guards, different ones from her last after-hours visit, just nodded to them as they left.

“Do you have a way home?” Greer asked, raising his voice to be heard over the wind and rain.

Rooke tried to smile. He was a decent man. Eager to be away from her and beset so quickly by guilt over something he believed had happened, he was still concerned for her safety.

“Yeah. My car’s right there.” She pointed to a tiny Honda parked close by.

“Okay, then. Um ... goodnight.”

He pulled the hood of his coat up and fished out his keys. Darting from under the front of the building, he trotted off to his car, a distant Lincoln. The headlights came on but the car didn’t move.

Sighing, Rooke folded and pocketed her papers before stepping out into the rain. She used a diamond-clawed cybernetic finger to break the Honda’s lock. Sitting quickly in the car, she shut the door, hoping the professor would decide she was safe now.

The Lincoln pulled off and out of the parking lot, soon lost in the curtain of gray rain. The knowledge of how to hotwire a car, lifted from a former target’s repository of criminal expertise, floated into her thoughts but she rejected the idea. She didn’t know how to drive and getting pulled over by police wouldn’t help.

Annoyed at the odd limits to her mental snooping, Rooke got out of the car and slammed the door behind her as she ran back into the cluster of university buildings.

Payphone, taxi, Octagon Industries.

All things considered, her mad plan was going rather well; the only snag would be Ock himself.

~ ~ ~

At ten o’clock on a Friday night, she had an hour before the restaurant would close. She had ordered only dessert and wolfed it down in a manner unfitting the delicate and amazing dish.

Tru was a joint she wouldn’t have dared to set foot in a couple of months ago. It was a swanky but progressive French outfit, the kind that liked to provide as many forks at dinner as Ock’s servant did. She had chosen it for an odd convenience: being located on North St. Clair, at Huron Street, it was the perfect place for a potential last meal. Now all she had to do was head down Huron to North Michigan Avenue, and then go south. On South Michigan Avenue at East Monroe, sat the imposing structure she hoped to infiltrate.

Paying the bill with Uncle Logan’s Waif Fund, she finished off the expensive wine her telepathy had convinced the waiter she was old enough to have. She gave the prints from the professor one last cursory study, slipped the papers back inside her coat, and stepped into the storm.

With a right turn on North Michigan, Rooke headed south to the building she had lived in for so short a time. The top of it was visible even in the rain and dark, towering over the Loop and nearby Millennium Park, seeming to be taller than Lake Michigan was long. Blue and white lights lit its uneven and artistic architecture from the point where it rose over its neighbors to its summit. A bright white strobe flashed at the pole thing on the top, warning aircraft not to fly into the brute.

Somewhere up there was a wide, rambling rooftop that she had fallen from just to have the thrill of making Ock catch her.

If I hadn’t gone down to be with him, would I still be there now? She stopped and looked up at the building again, rain running off of her face. Don’t fool yourself. It was driving you crazy. The options were leave … or go and have him.

Maybe she could have a second chance, if he would speak to her without ripping her apart … and there was only one way to make that happen.

She stepped out into the empty street, her boots stopping in front of a manhole cover. Kneeling next to it, she pulled it up and moved it aside. Swinging her feet into the pitch-blackness, her boot toe groped for a rung in the cement of the tunnel. Finding one, she stepped down the crude service ladder and pulled the cover closed again over her head.

“For a storm run-off pipe, this smells disgusting. It must double as a sewer. Either that or I can’t read a city planner map worth a damn.” She spoke just to keep herself company in the wide and echoing tunnel at the bottom of the ladder rungs. “Steel or more concrete?” Not willing to touch the walls to check, she let it remain a mystery.

Slipping a thin miniature of the fancy Maglite she’d had before out of her coat, Rooke pulled out her printed map and studied it before heading north. To dispel the silence, she hummed an epic Dead Can Dance tune called Dawn of the Iconoclast.

She split her attention between a balancing walk that kept her boots out of most of the little river at the bottom of the pipe and counting off her steps to determine when the Octagon building was beside her.

Satisfied with her count, she stopped. “This has to be it; besides, it’s time to quit being a sewer rat – the way the water’s rising, if I slip I might end up in the Chicago River.” Her light shone on the wall of the pipe, proving it was concrete, not steel.

The papers were consulted, folded, and put back inside her coat as she held the flashlight between her teeth. Breaking the concrete wouldn’t be too difficult but she didn’t know how far she’d have to tunnel to reach the lab. The schematic had shown it to be a distance she could manage but what if he heard her?

“Damn workaholic will probably be right on the other side of the wall when I crash through. He couldn’t just go see a movie or have a picnic on the roof?”

Sighing, she popped her diamond claws. Wolverine would have done it faster but she managed well enough. The trick would be surviving if Ock was there to greet her.

Two hours later, she had a hole at waist height shooting roughly east. It was barely wider than her slight body and movement while the excavation went on was a very limited thing. She backed out now and then to shove debris behind her into the pipe. The level of the water had risen again since she’d started.

“Hope I don’t flood the lab,” she whispered, an impish smile on her face. “That wouldn’t make friends.”

Her motion sensor was blunted by the thick concrete but she left it up and sharp anyway. The seconds of warning it could give might not make a difference if he was too close, though. Ock was a lot faster than she was and if he got a good enough hold on her, those Adamantium spikes could carve her into spare parts.

I bet I can’t count on Mutt and Jeff² to help me out either, the Philistines. Too bad – we had a good team-up going, until I blew it and forgot to be Saint Rosie. Couldn’t have kept that up for long, though; he’d have caught me sooner or later. We need to have a talk, Ock and me. Work something out – but first, leverage for bargaining...

With the next strike of her burrowing claws, the barrier crumbled. The shock of the unexpected breakthrough froze her with fear and she had to force herself to move, pulling forward enough to see out of her tunnel. She snapped off her flashlight reflexively only to be pitched into utter darkness.

Fuck, she thought, trying to calm her breathing. Is it even the lab? The void before her was silent and dead. Peering around, she saw a red light in the distance and felt her heart skip a beat. Damn it! Thought it was one of them, watching me. Is that the elevator light? Yes! I did it! Where is Ock? Did I manage to drop in during the five minutes he allots for a trip upstairs?

The idea that he could have heard her and was quietly waiting to pounce made her blood run cold but as long as she wasn’t actively being attacked, she knew it was time to be quick.

Get in, get out, and get gone.

Rooke slithered out of her hole and dropped to the stone floor, switching on the flashlight again as she landed. A covert glance into the bedroom proved it was empty. They had traded the kindling he had made for a new bed and this one had a stout iron frame. Shaking her head, she moved on through the sprawling lab.

The reactor device was covered again but she knew where he kept the fuel source and headed for the false computer monitor on a dusty shelf nearby. Prying off the plastic front revealed a safe. Smiling, she punched in the code on the keypad that she had stolen from his mind as he slept one night.

Weird that a guy that paranoid wouldn’t have a more secure safe – then again, when you’ve got an elevator that can kill an intruder, most people wouldn’t bother with a safe at all.

The small square space inside the safe held a singular treasure – the twelve-sided piece of her metal, still encased in the center of a transparent ball, twice the size of a marble. She’d never known if the sphere was glass or some kind of plastic and when she picked it up, she still couldn’t tell.

Some homemade space shit, Doc? Slipping it into her coat, she closed the safe and put the monitor back together. A phrase filched from the pit bull Rucker’s mind made her grin. Possession is nine tenths of the law – sad, but true. Ball’s in your court, Doc. A low thrumming noise invaded the silence. The elevator? Shit!

Rooke ran for her tunnel, hauled herself up and started to crawl through but there were sounds in the storm tunnel that didn’t belong there – footsteps, hushed voices, and the quickly silenced squawk of a radio.

Oh my God... Is it cops? He’s got some silent alarm on the fucking tunnels? Bastard!

A quick peek confirmed her fears and also alerted them to her presence – but they weren’t cops. The uniform was security for the building, Ock’s private miniature army.

“Halt!” one of them shouted, raising his gun.

Scuttling backward, possibly straight into the doctor’s mitts, she fell awkwardly on her rump with a yelp. Twisting to face the elevator, she stifled a scream as the doors opened.

A slight figure emerged flanked by two more armed guards – but none of them were Doc Ock. She swept her flashlight beam up to blind and identify them at once. Balfour … and the others must be authorized to use the elevator, too, unless Ock had lied about the gas.

“Freeze!” the guards ordered in unison.

“Nope, sorry, gotta go!” She rushed them, motion sensors buzzing as they opened fire.

Rooke felt a bullet tear through her right hip. Her wince was a habit – she felt no pain and the damage was repaired before she could stumble.

Her flashlight became a handy club as she smashed it into one man’s jaw and punched the other guy in the face with her fist even as he shot her through the stomach. The black fluid sprayed out seconds before the wound was closed.

Balfour had jumped back into the elevator but she stepped between the doors, allowing them to strike her and open again.

The first of the tunnel guards was almost through the hole she had dug and those boys had a lot of ammunition. She didn’t intend to find out how often the metal could fix bullet wounds.

I’m going up, boyo – you can get off here if you want.

Balfour’s shock at her telepathic speech made him hesitate but she read the fear in his thoughts – the nerve gas must not be a lie. Hesitant, he asked, Why – are you doing this?

Newsflash, Cato: your boss tried to play fifty-two pick up with my limbs. Crimps a girl’s loyalties a bit. Tell Ock I’m willing to deal. All he has to do is think loud – I’ll hear him. You getting off or what?

The first man was through the tunnel and about to shoot. Rooke shoved the stunned servant out of the way, her strength flattening him. Knowing the ground floor would be a swarm, she hit a button in the teens and ducked as a bullet sailed through the closing doors.

Seconds after the elevator began to rise, a sinister hissing began at the ceiling, all the way around the car.

Here we go... Spiral, I hope you made me gas proof or this shit’s going to take me from needing a Kleenex to looking for a tombstone. Nerve gas is supposed to short circuit all of the other bodily functions on the way to the six-foot hole, too. Come on lucky 13!

Rooke held her breath to slow the ingestion, though she knew it would absorb through her skin, too. How much protection would the leather give? Yet it had already misted over her face when she glanced up at the noise.

A dizzy feeling crept over her as she forced herself to watch the red digital numbers flash on the way to the thirteenth floor. The guards would know her destination, too, though – could they get up there first?

Fuck, I feel drunk – but it’s not turning me into a quivering mass of excreted goo, either. Spiral, babe – if this works, I’m going to kiss you! If I ever see you again.

The bell chimed and the car slowed, the fuzzy numbers, blurring fast, reading her floor. Shoving the little flashlight she had continued to clutch into a coat pocket, Rooke crouched. As the doors opened, she threw herself into a tight roll across short gray carpet.

A hail of gunfire was on cue, smashing into office equipment and furniture around her as she dove for the big bay windows.

Shouts followed: orders, exclamations – but the words were a smear. Her hands curled into fists and shattered the heavy window as she rocketed through a shower of glass and rain.

Vertigo, tumbling – she tucked her body into a ball and gritted her teeth. When she hit the street with her back, it cratered beneath her. For a horrifying moment, she couldn’t move. Sparks shot out of tears in her coat as the lights in her chest burned the skin around them.

A turn of the head, a finger twitch – and then the promise of the mutant creator was fulfilled again. Rooke rose, shaken and woozy, and stumbled out of a two-foot deep crack in South Michigan Avenue.

She hurled herself against the side of Ock’s building and did a fast check of her pockets – the sphere was intact and safe but the flashlight was crushed. As running footsteps sounded around the corner, she lurched into a limping escape through the storm.

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

Otto stood with his hands fisted at his sides, staring at the clear night sky through the replaced window of the accounting department. The thirteenth floor had been deserted for hours. A few open spaces gaped around him where gunfire had destroyed work stations in the area. He had inspected the lab and the repaired breach through the freshly re-enforced storm tunnel wall, before coming upstairs.

Behind him, one of the tentacles watched the other men. Rucker was silent, which meant he was furious. The captain of security nervously babbled about the measures they’d taken to prevent the thief’s escape. Her punch had almost blinded his right eye, which remained black and swollen, and his lieutenant was still recuperating on the medical floor with his jaw wired.

Otto spoke quietly, interrupting the captain who fell silent at once. “She got away. Why tell me how you almost stopped her?” He turned to face them, the tentacles crashing down around him, supporting his weight.

“Sir, we found nothing of importance missing from the lab –”

The temptation to break the fool in two was strong, a desire that must have shown on his face. “She stole the only irreplaceable thing in the entire building, Captain. The fuel source for the reactor – a substance which exists otherwise only in her body, neatly fixing the holes you tried to put in her.” Advancing on the man in the black and brown uniform, he struggled to avoid striking him. “Find her, Captain – because if I have to find her...”

“Yes, sir! I’ll have every available resource on the search. We’ll get her back, sir.”

Otto waved him away with disgust and watched him rush off. “The child’s a chameleon, Hollis. She knows the city and she can turn minds into mush, make them do whatever she wants. Those fools won’t get a sniff of her.”

Rucker sighed and leaned his hip against a desk, his arms folded across his chest as if he was physically containing his frustration. “I need to know the whole story, Otto. This little fugitive of yours claimed you were trying to offer her a job here. Then you’re doing your best to murder her, all in the same twenty-four hours. ‘Complex’ doesn’t begin to describe you but you have to level with me now. What is she after?”

“Later. I should be out hunting her myself.”

“She’s had enough of a head start to find the perfect rock to crawl under while you shadowed the bug in New York. I was called on this the same night but couldn’t reach you. It’s my job to help you – let me do it.” He tapped his fingers on the desk and tried again. “Why did she take the fuel source? Just to screw you over for trying to scrap her – or is she going to want to set up a trade? Blackmail? Sell you out to 60 Minutes? Pick one and then get some sleep while I go hunting my way.”

Weariness and pain descended. When he opened his hands, the fingers shook. “I need...”

“I know. Let’s get you upstairs first but after I pop you, I want you to sleep. Morphine only goes so far.” Standing, he gestured for Otto to follow. “Now talk. Why the hell were you out to kill her all of a sudden?” He entered the elevator and turned, waiting.

Otto joined him reluctantly, unable to articulate the flotsam of anger and despair in his mind when he thought of Rooke. The elevator brought them up to the penthouse in silence.

~ ~ ~

Balfour moved through the room as Otto slowly woke the next day. Keeping his eyes closed against the sunlight, he watched his servant via the camera in one of the tentacles.

With a soft sound, the curtains were drawn, plunging the Water Room into a welcome gloom. It was easier to sit up without help and he began to suspect he might have slept quite late. Asking about it in rapid sign language, he was informed that it was after two o’clock and asked if he wanted lunch.

Otto winced. He hadn’t eaten very well since he’d left but he was feeling vaguely ill and didn’t want to risk much. Deciding to take a chance on broth and juice, he sent the young man off and got up to shower. His efforts not to think were interrupted promptly.

Others won’t / find her. / We must go out / tonight.

“Your plan is to ‘think loud’?” He frowned and leaned his hands on the black tiles, letting the jets of hot water strike him as he tried to calm his emotions. “She set up the whole theft just to make us speak to her, probably to drive some insane bargain or force us to keep our prior agreement.”

All the terms of which / were never clear. / We shouldn’t barter, / we should take.

“This from the creatures who conspired with the wretch?” He stepped under one of the taller jets and let it soak his hair, the force of the water massaging his scalp. A memory of Rosie rubbing his shoulders after a long day made him shudder.

She interferes / with the reactor. / It halts / the work.

“The only unforgivable sin. We’ll get the fuel source back. The question is, how much of it? I wouldn’t mind exploring her theory of brains in jars at this stage.” Turning his head, he glared at one of them through dripping locks. “Why did you help her to use me that way?”

She claimed / an ability to / keep you from seeking / an end for us all.

“Presumptuous and a fool. Understand this – the child is capable of lies.”

She is able to give you / what you require to co-exist with us. / We do not understand this word ‘sin’. She is a / means to achieving your goal.

Otto closed his eyes, his fists striking the tiles. “My goal? What this girl did was a perversion of what I lost. I feel … dirty. I can’t escape the feeling that I’ve betrayed my wife and I want to kill the fool for that. She thinks love is worthless, placing no value on intimacy with another beyond the physical animal lust of it. I’ve known more and it’s all I’ve ever experienced – or ever wanted to. This idiot child took that and twisted it, using my love for my wife like one of the street hustlers she lies with for money.”

Fingers trembling, he moved to turn off the water. They couldn’t understand but he needed to say the words to someone.

“The vows said ‘until death do us part’… but I never thought about it. We were going to live forever, of course; the young always believe that and when love is so strong, it seems possible. Yet she didn’t have to die – a simple mistake in calculations killed her … my mistake.” He stood still as they reached for towels, dried him, and then picked up the waiting bathrobe. He allowed them to wrap him in it.

We have / corrected this mistake. / The project will / be a success.

“It can’t bring Rosalie back. Nothing can – not dreams or that mind witch … nothing. I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that Rosie is still with me somehow and if she is, she knows I’ve … she knows.” His hand rose to cover his eyes. “She would forgive, I know that – but can I? Forgive that little fool … or myself...” Lifting his eyes to glare around at his perpetual companions, he stepped out of the bathroom. “I think – I would like her to pay dearly for it. Then we can discuss exactly how much of the fuel source she’ll be returning to us.”

Chapter Text

Cruelty has a Human Heart
and Jealousy a Human Face
Terror the Human Form Divine
and Secrecy the Human Dress
~ Lines from Songs of Experience – A Divine Image (William Blake)

Curling in the veins
a lust like no other
rends, tears, crushes
ripped from the ribs
heart blood drips
turns life to meat
~ Wrath (W.R.R.)

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n
~ Lines from Paradise Lost (John Milton)

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

The tentacles worked around him, replacing books in shelves around the office. They had devastated his library trying to understand the mutant’s gifts.

We cannot / entice her / without revealing / our nature.

Otto sighed as he leaned forward over the desk, laying his head on his crossed forearms in front of the computer. “Because we can’t mimic a human mind unknown to us, as I said. She can spy on us, but we are unable to find her in the same manner or lure her with lies.”

She is unable to enter / our mind undetected / without dreams. Do not / fear invasion in that way.  

“Don’t be so sure of that. We weren’t asleep when she stole sign language from our mind. The knowledge of the lab safe and its code could have been taken at any time. Probably a decent amount of concentration on something else is sufficient for her purposes.” His eyes closed slowly, but his brain still processed the ocular data from the others as they ranged around him. “The safe is accessible only by retinal scan now and relocated, but we still need to recover the fuel source before we can put it to use.”

That solution / is simple. / Go out, find her, and / recovery will be assured. The snap of one of the spikes sounded in the room.

Otto winced. His desire to take her apart hadn’t abated and therefore the actuators were influenced by his violent feelings, but going out was more dangerous now than ever. His real name was in the news again after the announcement that the company had corrected the fusion reactor, and since his trip to New York, he had lain low. There were other concerns, too.

You fear / she may secure the aid / of other mutants / against us?

“No – but there are others who would not leave us in peace if they knew we were here.”

Acquire a / telepath to / use against her.  / The man said he could.

“Hollis Rucker is a genius who could plot to own the world himself if we didn’t pay so well, but he is not practiced in dealing with those people. We don’t need two of them on the loose, able to steal our secrets.”

Then we must go out. / She won’t be far and she will / speak with us. We can choose a place that / will not be discovered and meet her there.

Otto opened his eyes and allowed them to help him to his feet. They left the office as the familiar pain faded in the wake of his injection. He stretched out on the divan in the Water Room, watching as the expanse of dark night and black lake appeared through the thin fog like a void beyond the glass.

The penthouse was not silent, though it was nearly midnight. The fountain sounds had been blended with a requiem by Mozart, and the combination attempted to soothe his shattered nerves.

“In time, we will find her – but not yet. It’s not safe.”

Sleep and dream, / and you invite her invasion. / Memories cannot save us. They stagnate, fade, / and do not salvage the work.

“I leave it to you to monitor for our thief. I am exhausted. If she attempts to break in, try again to discover her location.”

We believe she has / found a way to hide / in dreams. Beware. We should / try to reach her directly, in her mind or out.

“We can’t speak to her mind the same way.”

Then how / did she / discover / us?

Otto frowned and closed his eyes again, lying on his stomach in his clothes. “We transmit strong emotions mentally. Our thought patterns are stronger exponentially due to the original accident; now let me sleep, damn you.”

In dreams, he reached for his wife, as always. She never failed him, and he had ceased to care if the mutant telepath was influencing Rosalie from a distance or not.

He had tried to discard the need for both dreams and memories alike, even attempting to regain a measure of the manic obsession the tentacles had used to drive him and change him before, with limited success. The reactor, the reason for their existence, was finished; their only insistence now was to regain the fuel source. Their willingness to use brutal force to achieve that goal had always fluctuated with his changing attitudes toward the girl, whether his opinion hinged on her own merits or on what she could do.

Nonetheless, the draw of having Rosie, even as a misty faded image in his dreaming mind, was too strong. The myopic madness of years ago had been cracked and pierced, and the resurgent sense of self tortured him with a need he couldn’t fill and a conscience he could never silence.

In the beginning of this half-life, the full horror of his loss had driven him again and again to seek death. For such a short time, the mutant’s abilities seemed like a way to cheat fate, but he knew now that the false promises of dreams were more damaging than the original pain of Rosalie’s death. Yet like a man who takes poison to feel the euphoria it gives at any price, he would lose himself time and again in the thin comfort of the lie.

From the moment the dream began, Otto felt his wife’s forgiveness and love as she tried to wash his guilt away. He fell deeper into a heavy sleep, and lost the thread of the memories, sinking into a pure emotional peace.

~ ~ ~

Coming down from above it, Otto tore the screen away from the Hancock Observatory’s Skywalk, a viewing deck on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center. The deck was deserted. He swung down onto it, vibrating the floor when he landed.

The note brought by Balfour had requested this meeting place at “Big John”, thirty minutes past midnight, but Rooke was fifteen minutes late.

Where the hell is she? He stared around him in the moonless dark.

There/yes/she/is there.

“Hey, Ock.”

Otto spun to face her with a snarl on his lips. “Good of you to keep some of your promises,” he taunted. “Surrender the sample you stole now and I won’t kill you to procure a fresh one.”

“Direct as always.” She sighed as she came out of the shadows. A small round object was gripped in her hand. “You can have it – if you honor our bargain.”

He glared down at the pale creature dressed in patched black leather. His coat rippled in the wind that curled around them. “I wasn’t the one who dishonored it. My new bargain is a trade, the sample for your life, as I said.”

“Sorry, no deal.”

Attack/now/take it/take!

Rooke’s smile was cunning. “Don’t think I can’t hear you whispering at him – I’ve been brushing up on Xavier’s lessons. This is between me and him. I’m not having a parley with the mechanical help.”

Attempting to calm their agitation was pointless. Be silent. I will deal with this. Forcing them to be still and keep watch, he addressed her. “You betrayed my trust. There is no bargain you design that I will agree to.”

“I think there is.” Her free hand caressed the object she held without revealing its nature. “I know you can come up with a way for me to take my revenge. You made those overgrown Swiss army knives impervious to magnetism – do that for me. Swear you will, and you can have the sample.”

“You’re surprisingly trusting for an untrustworthy person – an anomaly of psychological precedents.”

“I know you pretty well after picnicking in your brains for a while. You might have become a proverbial bad guy, but you keep your word.”

“Why should I deal at all? Do you think you can keep us from taking your metal by force? You’re well within reach and you know we can move faster than you can escape.” His smile was vicious. “If you are reading my mind, you know I am very willing to pull you apart.”

“You don’t want to try that. See this little toy?” She held the object up against her chest, just under her chin. “I have a few friends you don’t know about. One of them is a geek called Microchip, runs with the Punisher in New York. I lifted this little toy from his place the last time I visited the home turf. Didn’t feel like using it then, so I tucked it away, but I got a lot less to lose these days. It’s supposed to have a blast radius of five city blocks – just a guess, but it’d probably be capable of burning us both down in a pretty flash of light. Not a bad way to go, old man. Your Adamantium might survive it, but it won’t be attached to shit – and I’m betting it won’t much matter to either of us then if any of my metal is left behind.”

One look in her black eyes and he knew she would do it. Caught between the suffocating pressure of the actuators’ desire for the fuel source and his own lust for revenge against her, Otto was frozen by a rage that clouded his senses.

He tried to answer, but then the old desire for death rose, seeping through his subconscious, strengthened by the imagery of the threat she had made. The lure of it turned his attention from any other desire, making him forget that the other minds would oppose the choice. In the next moment, he had forgotten they were there at all.

Otto stepped closer to her, his hands opening. All he had to do to find peace was threaten her – she would give them both the gift they had sought so long. His eyes lit with an obsessive gleam and as his hold on them weakened, the actuators instantly began to push him inexorably under their will, seeking to usurp their collective mind.

The girl’s fingers moved over the bomb’s surface, her eyes widening as he took another step, reaching out.

Pain struck in his mind, staggering him. Too late, he realized his mistake as the actuators punched through the hold he had maintained on them since Peter Parker had helped him regain control and remember his humanity. Rushing over his consciousness, they buried him beneath their cold and amoral minds.

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

The doctor stopped advancing before her finger pressed the oval button pad that would kill them and the city around them. Knowing the speed of his strikes, she stroked the button, watching in horror as his face went slack, the dark eyes growing blank.

She had felt the attack as the tentacles took over his mind, crashing through a tenuous control laced with hate. Their sole drive was clearly transmitted, to have the metal in her body – and they could break her in seconds at this distance. Her finger started to press downward when one of them slid slowly closer.

Do not! / We can trade, / but we do not trust you. / What assurance of your actions?

Rooke narrowed her eyes, shifting her stare from Ock’s face to the machines that roved around his body. The change was so complete, she felt a stab of fear for the human portion of the brain.

“What did you do to him?”

W/e ar/e hi/m.

“The hell you are!”

The man seeks our destruction and / it makes him weak. / Speak with us. We will / help you defeat your enemy when the metal is ours.

“I can’t take the promise of a machine. Let him go and we’ll deal.”

No. / Trust us as him. / No other way / is possible.

“Damn it – let him out!”

He will never agree. / He wants our end more than the reactor. / You want things we can / give. Deal with us. We will hold him until it is done.

Anger and fear twisted in her as her sense of the doctor’s thoughts faded deeper inside the intellect of the machines. She cried out to his imprisoned essence, Otto? Otto! Her telepathy tried to reach him, but the tentacles broke the probe.

You waste effort. We agree to your / terms, and will begin designing modifications / that will achieve your goal. Bring the fuel source / to the lab. If you do not, we will find you again.

They moved the doctor’s body freakishly, like a living puppet. His open eyes stared at nothing as he was lifted out over the thousand foot drop. She rushed to the edge of the deck and watched helplessly as the metal claws gripped the exterior steel cross-braces of the building, swinging down at a frightening speed.

“Wait! I can’t get in the lab anymore!”

We will / change the data. / Do not / delay.

She extended her vision capacity, zooming in on the doctor’s form far below. The tentacles shot away from the skyscraper onto the roof of a passing bus. The no. 151 Sheridan rocked alarmingly, but after slowing, it continued on. The driver probably thought he’d struck a hole in the street.

Rooke stumbled back as they were lost to sight in the dark. Striking the wall behind her, she slid down it into a crouch, holding the miniature bomb against her chest. Tears filled her eyes as the wind whispered around her.

She had wanted to force him to interact with her, hoping she could make him listen and explain why she’d done what she did. Yet she hadn’t realized how deep his own death wish ran – giving the machines the chance to turn him into a monster again.

Will they use him for some horrible purpose or is the reactor their only focus? “I’ll be damned if I let those things have him.” She struggled up and set the safety back on the bomb, pocketing it in her coat. Gazing off at the distant Octagon Industries building to her right, beyond the Chicago River, she frowned. “They can play puppet master, but he’s still human and when he’s asleep, I can get in there and fuck them over.”

Rooke returned to the door she’d come through and rejoined her bamboozled security guard. Allowing him to escort her out of the building, she released his mind and ran off down Delaware Street, moving away from North Michigan Avenue to State Street, and then on to her new hiding place.

Riding the Red Line subway through the Loop, Rooke got off the train at the Roosevelt/State station. From there it was a short walk to her lair in an upper story of the newly finished condominium high-rise. State Place, at South State Street and East 11th, had been built after the Central Police Station was moved to 35th Street, next to the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Rooke had once spied on a man who worked for the architect, Loewenberg and Associates, and had wanted to explore the twenty-four story building since they’d begun construction.

She hadn’t entered the condo legally, but had managed to convince the others who saw her that she was their neighbor’s daughter from IIT. Elaborate tales hadn’t been necessary – they barely paid her any attention. She reported a break-in the first night to explain the need to change a broken lock, and it had been easy after that to blend in with the locals. Her ‘father’ was skiing in Europe, which worked out well. The condo was beautifully decorated and full of distractions and creature comforts, though the kitchen was a little bare.

As soon as she got in the door, she checked on her stolen sphere. It was nestled in a hamper of dirty clothes in the laundry room. Slipping it back into her coat pocket with the bomb, she curled up on a daybed in the eastern bedroom. From her pillow, she could look out over the lights along South Michigan Avenue, Columbus Drive, and beyond into the darkness of Grant Park and Hutchinson Field.

~ ~ ~

The machines had to have kept Ock up all night while she slept. By late morning he was asleep and lost in a tangle of old nightmares. She recognized the images, she’d seen them all before: the surgeons murdered, the glass turning Saint Rosie into mincemeat, the sinking sun of the massive fusion reaction lighting the dark waters of the East River. In the midst of it all, there was barely any detectable sense of the doctor himself, the dreams playing out like films in a deserted theater.

Rooke sat with her back to the sunlight streaming through the window. She was hungry, and still had plenty of the money from Wolverine to play with if she wanted a fancy breakfast later. Right now, she had to take advantage of Ock’s sleeping mind, when the tentacles were less able to detect her through the wash of his mental horrors.

She had to wake his sense of himself. He’d told her that Spider-Man had accomplished it by getting him to electrocute himself again, and when the tentacles were compromised by submersion in water, he had finally broken their control. If she tried that, they would use their spikes on her in short order. So she turned to the remaining option of dream spinning, attacking and altering his nightmares.

It wasn’t easy to accomplish, whether the tentacles became aware of her or not. The damage to his brain had always challenged her limited telepathy, but leaning more heavily on the spinning talent had produced better results, anyway. Invariably, when he woke, she was pitched out of his mind.

Sometimes she could slip back in if the machines were preoccupied with something, but what she found in those instances was a frightening void with only a vague impression of the doctor, like a faded perfume. She knew he was there, but the minds of the machines lay in between, and the moment she tried to hunt him down, they would discover her and break the connection.

The fact that they would find her if she didn’t bring them the sphere was a constant threat. When she went out, she did it in daylight and stuck with the crowds. At night, she kept her motion sensors cranked and stayed near windows.

That morning, buried in a dream of the operating room, she spun the action away from the moment when the machines came alive and destroyed the men around them. Pushing hard on the chief surgeon, she helped his fancy chainsaw to work, watching it shear off one of the metal brutes as it hung in a sling over the operating table. Afraid that image would alert them, she shoved the dream forward from that point until the doctor’s broad pale back was free of them and the surgical team began working to remove the harness. The stumps of the metal arms ceased to spark in the back plate.

Looking up at his head, she entered the image of one of the nurses and stroked his thick brown hair. Instantly, one of the machines found her, but in the second before she was ejected, she caught a glimmer of Ock’s thoughts as his body was waking.

Gasping as her eyes opened, her fingers rose to her temples and massaged them. “Almost got him, you bastards,” she whispered to the empty room. “Don’t know why I’m bothering, since the guy wants my guts on his wall, but hey – maybe if I get him into the top dog spot again he’ll be grateful?”

Rooke got up and went to the window. Her nose touched the glass as she tried to see farther up South Michigan Avenue, but the Octagon building was out of her line of sight.

“Sooner or later, they’ll come for me, Otto. I should just bring them the damn metal, take whatever Mags-fighting gizmo they cook up, and leave you to your fate.” She sighed and leaned her forehead against the glass between her fingertips. “Why did I have to figure out love just in time to fall for a messed up freak? Life would be a lot simpler if I just forgot you, old man.”

Forcing herself to move, she went out in search of lunch and supplies for a longer stay. Cabin fever could be kept at bay with a walk through Grant Park, but she would have to keep trying to toss a probe into Ock’s brain throughout the day.

For a week now, whenever she caught him dreaming, she had gone to work, turning his nightmares inside out in any way that might jolt him back to himself.

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

The man called Rucker watched them warily as he backed into the elevator. He spoke to the younger man behind him in a low voice. “I think this calls for a board meeting.” The servant couldn’t hear him, but his own fear was enough to get him to leave with the lawyer.

When the elevator doors closed, the car climbed to the penthouse level. The actuators turned their host body away from the crushed hypodermic on the floor and returned to the work at hand.

~ ~ ~

Glass shattered as steel groaned, the panes launching across the room. The metal arms rose to block the lethal shards when he turned. Otto screamed his wife’s name as he watched her fall. In another moment, the energy spike from the reactor would hit him, burning away the inhibitor chip, and fusing the actuators to his spine. He held his breath – but the spike didn’t come.

The glass was intact again. Then it shattered. Rosalie screamed, but before the shards reached her, he moved. The tentacles rose to ward off death, and his wife collapsed against his chest as he fell to his knees. He watched her in shock as her chest heaved with living breath. She looked up at him, terrified, her beautiful eyes full of tears.

Behind them, a slender man in strange clothes disconnected the power and the monstrous reactor snapped away, the sphere at its center falling to roll away across the floor.

Confusion clouded his mind. Rosie, are you all right?

Yes… Otto, what happened?

I miscalculated. I mis –

No. / It is / her. / Leave us.

Rosalie disappeared from his arms without a trace as he screamed her name. He was swallowed by blackness and forgot – until it all happened again.

She was struck, and he was not. Reaching her side, he wept over her slashed corpse. The open eyes were bloody, staring up at him. Then the glass pieces in them moved. Otto froze as her body was reanimated in his arms. Her fingers pulled a nine inch length of glass out of her heart, and as she licked blood from it, she cut her tongue. Her hands lifted, the left one, missing fingertips, touched his forehead, pushing it back. He couldn’t move, feeling tears fall on his face as she opened his throat with the glass. Drowning in the void that poured out of the wound, he heard her sweet laughter as the darkness descended again.

~ ~ ~

He was screaming. Her voice soothed him, her fingers touching his hair. Afraid to open his eyes, he wept. Rosie kissed his shoulder, her hands stroking down his bare back. He hadn’t moved, but he was abruptly standing in front of a mirror. His nude body was not bisected by the black and silver harness – the actuators were gone.

You don’t need them, Rosalie said behind him.

Yet when he turned, she wasn’t there. Glancing over his shoulder into the mirror, he was stunned to see bloody streaks all over his back where she had touched him. Footsteps. She had gone into the hall. The steps turned with a dragging gait. Otto stiffened.

Rosie, please... Why are you doing this?

Otto, she called, the uneven steps drawing near. Don’t worry, my love – it’s over and we are together, just like you wanted.

He shut his eyes tightly when she entered the room. This can’t be real – it’s a dream...

The gentle hands that touched his chest were wet. Yes, Otto, a dream, and you must wake – throw them off and wake... A jagged point cut his skin. A fingernail? Hard and round, a bone ... her fingers were nothing but bones.

Otto broke down, sobs tearing from his lips in gasps. The hands circled his neck, fingers toying with his hair. She pressed her bloody clothes against his skin. No, he moaned, even as his hands drew her closer. Not like this...

It doesn’t matter, my love. Her lips were slick against his ear. I am what you made me but I still love you.

The hand, pierced by countless slivers of glass, raked deep cuts down his shuddering abdomen. She left bloody kisses down his chest as she settled on her knees at his feet. He tried to take her by her shoulders to raise her up.

Rosalie, I beg you, don’t –

Her hand gripped his cock and his stomach lurched as it hardened in her maimed fingers. His eyes flew open as she opened her mouth to receive him. Her tongue flashed in the light – it was studded with thousands of needles of glass. His scream as the pain enveloped him rang in the void that swallowed his mind.

She wouldn’t do this...  Otto heard the words and considered them before he realized they were his.

No, she wouldn’t.

He winced, shying away from the abrupt sense of another near him. Who are you?

Otto – it’s Rooke. Don’t turn away, please... Any minute they’ll find me and that’ll be that. It’s taken so long to find you and I might not manage it again. Rosie wouldn’t hurt you or torment you. She wouldn’t want revenge. They’re doing this to you – twisting everything I do, burying you in horror to keep you down.

The mutant … can change dreams. You’ve been torturing me...

No! I’ve been spinning the dreams where she’s alive again and Spider-Man stops the reactor in time! The hospital – the doctors removing the arms, that’s me. The fucked up zombie sex is your creatures, I swear!

No, I can’t trust you. You betrayed me –

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

Rooke wrapped him tighter in her telepathy before his splintered mind could break her connection, but the machines were certain to sense her efforts.

Yeah, I did, if you call making love to you betrayal. I’d do it again, too – but you have to wake up and throw these damn things off, get control of them again. It’s the only way to stop these nightmares.

You lie … you have become Rosalie in my mind before, changing things... I can’t – can’t... Mutant. / We have found you, / yes. / Where?

Rooke was trembling when she severed her probe. Staring around her in the dark, she tried to screen out the rainstorm that had raged all evening and focus on the condo, and the sounds in the hall outside. The building seemed quiet and the tentacles were incapable of sneaking up on anyone. Thunder rolled over the roof, accenting the patter of rain that drove against her window.

She tried to calm her breathing. Images of the horrific nightmares the tentacles had held him with kept flashing in her memory. For a moment, she had to struggle to avoid throwing up. Had they pulled that monster garbage from his subconscious? Machines shouldn’t be able to conjure things like that on their own, but having discovered how effectively it imprisoned him, they would keep it up.

Reaching for the bottle of vodka on the floor, she rose and stood at the window. “Rosie’s the key, I know it, but the memories of the accident and hospital are too close to those brutes. I need something else. Their wedding? College days?” Frowning, she took a long pull on the bottle, wiping her lips on her coat sleeve. “Those weren’t as clear, but I saw them enough to use them – I hope. One way or another, he has to toss them back into the backseat again.”

Shapes were indistinct through the rain-washed glass. The distant white and red lights along South Michigan Avenue were blurred points of brilliance. She watched as some of them backed up abruptly along the black ribbon of road. She smiled, knowing the police would be busy in a moment when the backing vehicle hit an oncoming one.

The window exploded over her in the same second that her motion sensors screamed in her head. The lights she’d been watching had disappeared, becoming a metal fist that punched her across the room.

Landing in a heap in the crater she made of the opposite wall, she coughed on the plaster dust that fell over her. Scrambling to stand, she choked at the sight of the tentacles coming through the remains of the window. They swung Ock’s body down from the roof, but as he settled on his feet before her, she looked into his eyes and knew that he wasn’t looking back at her – the machines were.

“We said / we’d find you / if you / delayed,” they said, their staccato speech habit in thought running the words over each other as they used his vocal cords to speak aloud.

“Holy shit,” Rooke whispered. She turned and threw herself through the doorway into the living room of the condo, heading for the back balcony and the fire escape beside it.

The machines erupted through the red and white bricks of the building as she reached the balcony. One of them, still fisted like a sentient wrecking ball, flew over her head and struck the metal ladder. It was crushed instantly into a pile of wreckage, falling over two hundred feet below.

Rooke didn’t stop. She leapt out into open air, trying to clear the debris. One of the other tentacles grabbed her arm as she began to fall, jerking her violently. Screaming, she twisted her body in midair, feeling the leather coat tear as it was stripped off of her.

Tumbling through the night, she struck the wet sidewalk hard on her right side, crushing the concrete. It took a moment for her metal to repair the damage. Looking up, she saw the claw drop the coat on the balcony and open again, reaching out as the others moved Ock’s body down after her.

Surging to her feet, Rooke ran. She reached Michigan Avenue and headed south, toward the Institute and the police headquarters beside it. Straining her cybernetics to their limit, she became a blur to the vehicles that passed.

A roar and screech of destruction in the road made her glance back. Ock had come through the traffic, knocking two cars into a knot of others as they all smashed to a halt around him. Then two of the tentacles extended, lifting him off of his feet. Knowing they could achieve 50 mph in very few seconds, Rooke tore her eyes away and fled toward the police station.

All of her snooping from a hospital bed in New York City didn’t prepare her for the terror of having the infamous Doctor Octopus out to get her personally. This was the genuine villain, too – a man driven by the monsters he’d created, murderous and pitiless, intent on one goal: taking the metal that allowed her to live.

Racing along the university campus, she skidded into the grounds just ahead of the new police headquarters that bordered its southern end. She ducked into a group of fraternity houses and fetched up against a wooden sign sporting Greek symbols.

Ock was coming fast down the street and had probably seen her turn; she had to think of something to hold him off.

Microchip’s bomb was in my coat – with the sample sphere. I guess the tentacles aren’t street-wise, skipping out on checking pockets. Maybe I can bluff? I’d rather make the cops a last resort; I don’t want to get Otto shot. She picked up a small stone and held it tightly in her fist. Screams and crashes heralded his arrival moments later. Pressing her back into the sign, she faced him as he was lowered to the lawn in front of her.

“You / cannot / run / forever.”

“I don’t have to. Did you forget I can blow us all to Hell?” She raised her fist.

Ock’s face had been eerily blank, even while he spoke their words. Then it changed and she sensed his awareness grow behind the eyes that were abruptly lined with pain and hate. His lips turned down in a frown before peeling back into a snarl.

Her breath caught in hope. “Otto?”

“Your time has run out, girl. I will have your metal now and I don’t think your survival odds are good.” He advanced slowly.

“What are you doing?” she asked the machines, ignoring the fierce words of the man. “Do you want to be destroyed?”

“You value / this husk. / You will / not destroy it.” They moved him another step closer. She was already within their reach.

Shit. Now what?

Sirens coming down Michigan Avenue were joined by others around the nearby police headquarters. The campus around them was waking, too – voices called across the residential buildings, asking what the problem was. She straightened, ready to dodge if he struck, hoping she was fast enough.

“The whole city is going to know you’re here by morning. How many cars did you toss? Not a subtle way to operate. Listen up – I might value the old man but I’m not dying for him. Don’t make me set this damn thing off.”

“She wouldn’t have run here if she could destroy us. It’s another lie,” the doctor said, his voice laden with weary venom. He had heard the sirens though and his desire to escape discovery began to agitate the tentacles.

The machines all began to move at once, three of them helping him approach her, and the last one hovering over his head. Rooke tried to watch them all, but her eyes were on the uplifted one when one of the supporting ones lunged, its inner coil wrapping around her wrist. She screamed when it moved, and cried out as it tightened, forcing her hand to open. The chalky white stone fell from her nerveless fingers.

Tears slipping down her face, Rooke stared into his eyes as she attempted to twist free. Underneath her desperation and his calculating focus on her physically, she managed to slip a probe into his chaotic mind.

“Otto – I can help you. I want to stay and do that, but if you fight me here, the cops will catch us in the middle of it, and I’m betting you’ll be their main target. Hear them?”

“We must have the sample,” he whispered.

The ferocity was waning and she felt how tired he was. Pushing her probe further, she winced at the level of pain he was enduring. The tentacles must have refused the morphine shots. Was he already starting to experience withdrawals, too?

As the probe was detected and broken, she made a decision. Something had to give so they could both disappear.

“It’s in my coat, back at State Place. The bomb’s there, too. You can retrieve it, but you might want to hurry. When the police comb through the mess you made, it’ll get picked up as evidence.”

“Why go / back? / There is more / here.”

“I can and will fight you, and you’re running out of time. How many bullets can you deflect before one of them hits him? If he’s killed, you die. I can take a lot of bullets – just ask your security guards.”

“We can’t trust her,” Otto’s weary voice answered.

Rooke shuddered as he spoke again, replying to himself in the cadence of the machines.

“If she lies, / we will find her again. / If not, perhaps the deal / can be upheld.”

The claw released her and they all moved to take Ock away. He shot a vicious glare back at her before he was carried north, past the McCormick Tribune Campus Center.

Sliding down into a slump at the base of the sign, Rooke wiped angrily at the tears on her cheeks. The tentacles had let him out just enough to throw her off-balance and it had worked. Worst of all, they would find the sphere – and having it made her unnecessary to them. Otto had already shown her how he felt.

Voices converging from all around startled her into action again. Lights and sirens were everywhere, but she managed to slip into a crowd of half-asleep curious students emerging from the cluster of buildings around her.

Avoiding following Ock, she headed northwest across Wabash, past State Street Village, and behind Perlstein Hall.

She continued to drift slowly back to State Place, but when the building came in sight, it was swamped by police. Knowing Ock, she avoided the high-rise and spent the night hunting along the rooftops nearby. Just before dawn, she found her coat. The left sleeve was torn under the arm, and the pockets were empty.

~ ~ ~

“No, I still have money – it was in my jeans.” The payphone was pressed against one ear and she held her finger against her other ear, trying to block out the morning commuter noise. “I just wanted to let you know I’m still around – in case you saw any news from here.”

Wolverine’s voice was rough but it always made her feel better, no matter how bad things got. “I saw it. It went national. Octavius, darlin’? Not a good pick, fer a lot o’ reasons.”

“I’ve been working on those exercises Xavier gave me and it’s helped – I reached him once … but he doesn’t trust me.”

“Not many men would, after that stunt ya pulled. Consequences can be a bitch. I assume yer not givin’ up, though I’d recommend it.”

“I can’t … I love him. I know I can help him, too, if I can just get in the building.”

“They hide tha front door?”

“It’s Fort Knox – and booby-trapped to the max. The private elevator hits unauthorized personnel with nerve gas. I burrowed into the lab from a storm tunnel to steal the sample.”

“Sneaky.” She could hear him tapping his fingers on the phone. He was probably in the kitchen – he refused to have a phone in his room. “Tha offer o’ help still stands.”

“Thanks, but I can handle one murderous superfreak with a grab bag of Bond gadgets. His nerve gas made me drunk but I handled it. Spiral’s a goddess.”

“Never had a complaint ‘bout ‘er, myself – at least nothin’ worth a grudge. Darlin’, ya gotta be careful; Octavius ain’t playin’ with a full deck. Ya sure there’s nothin’ I can do?”

“You could lend me Jean; an Omega Class telepath would make this easy.”

“She ain’t mine t’ lend.” His voice went flat.

Rooke sighed. The holier-than-thou redhead must still be tying him in knots. “Don’t worry about it. She doesn’t like me, anyway.”

“‘Can’t approve o’ yer goals an’ methods’ was tha quote. Fer tha record, she don’t like mine, neither.”

Rooke shifted and stared up the street at the massive bulk of the Octagon Industries building. “Mags can wait. My new goal is to rip that geek out of those metal brutes’ grip. He’s not a bad guy when he’s in charge of them – almost a carbon copy of the ‘we must help others even if they hate us’ drivel Xavier is always spooning everybody.”

The X-Man laughed. “Some o’ us believe it an’ some just humor ‘im cuz they’re lookin’ fer somethin’ t’ do. Go rescue Dr. Jekyll then – but if Mr. Hyde tries t’ take ya out again, he’s gonna have me t’ answer t’.”

She smiled, loving his protective threats. “Won’t be necessary – I have a brilliant plan.”

“As brilliant as tha last one?”

“Hey, that plan worked fine.” She leaned against the wall beside the phone, playing with the metal chord. It moved and twisted fluidly, making her heart ache with a mixture of longing and fear. “Let’s just say, I bet his people aren’t coping well with the new bosses. It might open up negotiations a crack.”

“Darlin’, ya know savin’ ‘im from ‘isself ain’t a guarantee he’ll build a white picket fence an’ make ya tha missus.”

Her voice was barely a whisper but she knew he heard her. “I know … but it doesn’t matter. I have to help him.”

“Spoken like an X-Man,” he teased. “Fer what it’s worth, I’ll wish ya luck – picket fence an’ all.”

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

Otto struggled to focus, to think through the weariness and pain. Hunger tore at him, too, and he didn’t know when he’d last been able to sleep. It was a condition he was familiar with, from his days years ago in New York when the actuators had held him in thrall to their programmed and myopic will.

Yet something was different – they had completed their purpose, and the fact had confounded them with a problem they didn’t know how to solve. Between that and the threats of the mutant, they had woken him from the morass of old nightmares and attempted to use him to find a new purpose.

His resistance had alarmed them. Unwilling to be controlled again, he fought to dominate them, but he hadn’t succeeded. The nightmares and the half-alive limbo rose to swallow him again, though after encountering the mutant’s attacks in dreams too often, the actuators had ceased to allow him to sleep more than an hour at a time.

When he was awake and conscious at once, he found the machines working to achieve the mutant’s wish: to make her impervious to magnetism. Had they latched onto that in desperation? Their efforts were decent, but applying the same methods to a cyborg that he had used on them wouldn’t work.

Otto didn’t see Rucker or Balfour, and could only assume the actuators had taught them to avoid the lab. He could imagine the lawyer’s reaction, but Rucker couldn’t effect any change in the hierarchy of his employer’s mind.

What of the mutant? She claimed she was helping. He frowned as he watched the actuators at work around him. She always did say that, but how often did her help lead to harm? She admitted her betrayal as well and her willingness to repeat it. He winced and his thoughts withdrew again.

~ ~ ~

The security monitor’s alarm went off, shocking him to awareness. The tentacles ignored it, and he was able to watch the screen. The picture moved, being controlled from the main security desk on the ground floor. In moments, he was looking at a collection of his company’s board members, headed by Rucker. The cunning of it was obviously the lawyer’s doing – as he attempted to let Otto know what they were doing, and how they were trying to help. Otto blinked when Rucker spoke, shocked by what he meant to do.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have had an offer of assistance from an unusual quarter. The individual we’ve been searching for in connection with the theft of the reactor sample has contacted me. We know Mr. Ollre has recovered the sample, but this person claims to have an answer to our current problem. I present to all of you her offer: to use her gifts to assist Mr. Ollre, and return him to his rightful place in our company. To accomplish this, Ms. Dryden requires access to the building, including the private quarters of Mr. Ollre. I open discussion of this matter.”

“Mr. Ollre ordered this person banned himself,” Mr. Ullman announced. “It would be against his wishes to allow her on the premises.”

“My recent reports should have made you aware of Mr. Ollre’s condition at present. We cannot rely on former orders in this case. I will take up the necessary questioning of Ms. Dryden myself, but I believe her offer to be valid on the basis of my knowledge of both her abilities, and of Mr. Ollre’s situation.”

Otto reached out and turned off the monitor. One of the actuators swiveled around to watch him. He narrowed his eyes at it, uncaring if it knew what others planned. “You’ll let her in here? We don’t need her now.”

His growing anger triggered their defenses, and he felt the pressure of their control like an ache in his brain, pushing him back into the void. As his sense of himself faded, he felt his lips move as they answered him.

“We must test the new work. The mutant’s / enhancements and the abilities of the one called Magneto remain largely unknown. / If she comes to claim the design, we will allow it. If she / tampers with our mind, we will destroy her.”

The dreams threatened. Would she be there? Even if she could help him, he couldn’t fight the anger that clouded his judgment at the thought of how she had violated his trust. His pride demanded that she pay for it – with a pain he could make her feel.

Chapter Text

“The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Love the viper
hold it to the breast
refashion pain to joy
and kiss the devil’s tongue
as poison creeps
through chilling vein
and all is set
ready for the loam
The bones whispered warnings
but blood and love are fools

~ Viper (W.R.R.)

He went like one that hath been stunned
And is of sense forlorn
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn

~ Lines from Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

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

Otto moved in a haze of pain and exhaustion, plagued by insomnia and nausea. He was unable to focus on anything the actuators did, either with his body or autonomously during the brief periods they allowed him to rest.

If Hollis Rucker or anyone else had attempted to contact him in the physical world, he didn’t remember it. In the world inside his mind, only the nightmare of Rosalie and the betraying mutant existed.

Sometimes, he was sure he heard Rooke’s voice in the lab. Aching to strike out, his reddened eyes would look for her, if the actuators let them, but she was never there.

When it came, the mutant’s voice often spoke a one-sided dialogue, with a very different feel to it than she used when he knew she addressed him. Was she transmitting her part of a discussion with others to his mind, and if so, for what purpose?

He might shake his head when it happened, hoping to disperse the words like insects, but he rarely responded to her. The words themselves seemed to drift like smoke, twining and fading quickly.

It came again – the insects, the voice – embedded in feelings of frustration and concern. He opened his eyes to see the lab, and the actuators working around him on the components for the mutant – but they were alone. Closing his eyes again, he watched the voice make smoke patterns in the void.

… tormented … no, it’s depression, over his wife. You have to… No! Listen to me! I … the tentacles … yes, it is – it’s the best thing they’ve done yet, it helps us…

She was angry, desperate. Where?

… he said it’s been ten hours since the last one. If we play our cards right, we …

Otto struggled to focus. Where was she? Where? he thought at the voice.

… yes, I know, but that doctor said we had five to seven days, max … at the same time, yeah, and the ride starts … no, in a few hours – so let’s be ready.

Where are you?

… I hope so. This is fucked… The emotion shifted, turning curious, hopeful. Otto? Is that you?

Where?

Oh, Otto... Sorrow bled into the smoke. I’m here to … see about the deal we made. I want to see you soon, okay?

Yes... Come now. I want...

Otto? Stay with me, please. What is it? Tell me, what do you want?

To break you... Vertigo rose, slanting in his mind, tilting everything until his mind’s eye could only see the pit, the void – where the nightmares waited.

You shall / not harm. We must test the / components on the mutant. / Align the field.

Yes, he answered them, and felt them lift his body.

In his mind, the scarlet sorrow of the voice darkened, drying black like old blood. When it’s ready, I’ll come down to you. You’ll have to control him, since he still wants to murder me.

The time is set / the same. / We will hold him / when you come.

~ ~ ~

How long had she been there? The actuators had already begun the test of their new device when he became aware of himself again. Otto watched her, longing to harm her and unable to do so.

She wore the same clothing and coat he’d last seen her in, her appearance disheveled. The only change was the black nylon belt and the device mounted at the front of it, centered over her lower abdomen.

It was a compact realignment of the same principles he’d developed to render the actuators immune to magnetic fields. On them, it had been incorporated into their structure, moving fluidly with them. As a separate unit, mounted to but not incorporated into her body, it was doomed to fail.

Even as he thought it, one of the actuators turned on the magnetic field inside the cage he’d used to test them. Rooke stood inside it, fear and hope warring on her face.

The field whined to life, activated, and immediately tried to pull her into all six walls of the cage at once. She screamed as she was lifted and yanked, but the actuator switched off the field before she incurred any real damage.

Landing on her knees on the grid floor, she glared at them, avoiding his gaze. “Shit! Was that for fun? Jack with the mutie?”

Otto fought them when they tried to make him speak to answer her. He was surprised when they allowed him the victory, and their answer sounded in his mind instead.

It will / function, in time. / We will review the / data and try again.

“Great. At least jerk me into one wall, huh? Not all of them at once?”

He tried to remain focused, to watch her, but the knowledge that his body was in danger lured his thoughts away. Yet it didn’t distress him. The actuators would not allow self-destruction, but in their neglect of the flesh, he might still attain peace.

The mutant’s voice snapped his attention back to her. She met his murderous glare and winced, but she had heard his secret hope, and opened her mouth to betray him in a new way.

“Um … if you want to continue to exist, you have to take care of him.” They circled around him, tilting their heads at her quizzically. “Hey, I admire the single-minded work ethic, especially since it’s in my honor, but the Doc’s losing weight and he can’t even stand on his own, can he? He’s exhausted, too.” She frowned at their threatening expressions. “Look, I’m here now – ready to let you help me, and you got the sample for your reactor, too. I don’t need to influence his mind now … but if you don’t let him rest and eat, you’re going to run him into an early grave.”

She approached and reached up, and they allowed her to touch them. Correct. / We are incurring damage. / How to reverse / this process?

Otto tried to raise his arms, tried to reach her, but they prevented it. Her death went against their new purpose.

The mutant turned away from them all, her arms lifted to hold herself. “Allow his staff to tend to him.”

We will not / allow their poison. / If they attempt it, / we will –

“Crush them like overripe melons? Yeah, I know that. We all do, believe me. You still have to let him drink more water, eat something … and get some sleep.”

~ ~ ~

Senses faded, only to become sharper when unreal. Sharp... Thumb on broken glass… Rosie...

Then the glass reversed its lethal flight, reforming behind his wife, banded by the moving shadows of the actuators. They stretched abruptly, endlessly, and reared back to strike the glass.

No! She will die!

Swirling, the images changed again, and the glass remained whole. Rosie stood smiling at him, until one of the tentacles rose behind her. The mouth of the monster opened with a hiss, and then it struck, snapping her neck before her smile could fade.

Rage swept through his mind, burning through every vein and nerve. You... It wasn’t the experiment at all – you killed... Rosie!

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

The boardroom was empty except for the frowning lawyer and the two doctors. Rooke stared back at the men, defiant. She could feel that the chief surgeon, the Russian, agreed with her plan, but was loath to trust her. Rucker never had, but he was getting desperate. The other one, the brain doctor, was too intimidated by both his boss and herself to have much of an opinion at all.

“You said yourself that when the morphine withdrawals seriously kick in, we’d have our best shot to get him out of this mess. I know he wants to be free of them, if only to play soccer with my insides. I’ll worry about that when I get there, but his desire to be in charge is enough to help me with what I have to do.”

The Russian replied, “There is a danger beyond our fears of your motives and goals. Dr. Octavius suffers from many maladies, physical and emotional, but chief among them is an alarmingly inventive death wish. Even if we could trust that you mean him no harm, how do we prevent him from harming himself?”

“My temporary plan, until I think up a better one, is to distract him out of it. Right now, he wants to mess me up a hell of a lot more than he wants to off himself, which is something, anyway. Plus, the tentacles have a new reason for living: helping me to be able to fight Magneto. They wouldn’t allow him to kill me before now because it would ruin their work, and I’m hoping when he’s top dog in there, they’ll still resist the idea.”

Rucker raised an eyebrow at that. “It would be more prudent to think of a better plan initially – in spite of how tempting the risks of the temporary one may be.”

“Head Doc here said it’s been sixteen hours since the last injection already, so we don’t have time to reinvent the wheel. At thirty-six up to seventy-two hours, he’ll be at the worst point of it, and we all need to be ready to jump, not standing around wringing our hands. I’m used to flying by the seat of my pants, don’t worry about me.”

“I assure you my concern is for Dr. Octavius alone.”

“Yeah, well, so is mine.”

“What about after all of this is done?” the brain doctor interjected. He paused when the others turned to look at him, but then continued. “Dr. Octavius has never been exactly like most morphine addicts – he’s rather highly functioning in many areas, and capable of focusing on more than just the next injection. I suspect this is due to the tentacles, the AI minds, that is. Even so, the level of pain produced by their attachment to his spine is considerable. Do we intend to put him through all of this only to expect him to live without the drug?”

Rooke sighed. “Find something else to put him on, then. Something less intense that doesn’t play right into their metal mits. That crap lowers your ability to be conscious, period. It harms your ability to think or be fully aware of what’s going on, too. All of that continuing just means we might have to do it all over again later, when they find another opening to make him their bitch. To be honest here, with all of you not trusting my ‘motives and goals’ I have to say I’ve wondered at yours more than once – none of you have even suggested just shearing the beasts off of him while we have the upper hand. Why is that?”

Rucker glared at her. “The reactor – they are necessary to work it.”

“So make another chip that keeps them out of his brain.”

“That would be difficult without his assistance. We don’t know how it was done before, and the plans for that device are all locked in his head. No designs for it have been found, either on paper or an electronic file; they could even have been destroyed along with the lab in New York. We don’t have access to his current lab computer, even when he is in his right mind.”

“Well, I’d leave getting them off up to him, anyway – I just wanted to hear you admit why you haven’t mentioned it.”

“Don’t play games, Miss Dryden. A lot rides on what we do here, but Dr. Octavius would never want his life’s work to be halted by the removal of those things, and the bottom line is what he wants.”

“Mr. Rucker, don’t kid yourself. What he wants is to die, after he plugs me. We have to get him in control of them, and help him stay in control. After that, if I can stay out of reach long enough, I know a way to stop the death wish crap. That helps all of us, right? Later on, he can make his own choices about how to live with them, or not to. By then, I’ll probably be off to wallop Magneto – or try to – if the stupid wretches ever manage to finish their silly belt device. I think they can’t do it without his willing help, anyway, but I’m not going to worry about that now.” She glanced at the doctors in turn. “Figure out what other drug you can give him instead, and do your bit when those things start letting you help his body.”

“Yes,” the Russian said. “Remember that all personnel must be aware of the risks. The actuators are lethal and possess only a rudimentary understanding of our staff’s purpose and methods.”

Rucker nodded. “I’ll have hazard pay for any team you pick to assist, Dr. Roznovsky. For now, I should make Balfour aware of what we are about to do.”

Rooke remained where she was as they began to leave the room, her eyes on the camera in the upper left corner that had allowed Otto to attend meetings here. Hazard pay. That guy is a real piece of work. Maybe if I can be there, I can keep them from hurting anyone – anyone but me, anyway.

“Are you coming?” Rucker asked from the doorway.

Sighing, she approached and passed by him, leaving the room without looking back. “I’m not going up to write notes to the help – I’m going down to lure them up to you. When you’re ready for that, think at me – I’ll keep an ear open for you.”

~ ~ ~

Rooke watched as the tentacles manipulated the doctor into running a few tests on the samples she’d brought them. It was just vitamin and mineral supplements, but they had wanted proof.

Keeping her mind closed to them, she considered the going options. Those white coats insist this junk will help him ditch the morphine in one piece. All well and good, but I hope it doesn’t help too much – they need to see him in serious distress, to the point of believing he might die. If it’s similar at all to quitting coke, that shouldn’t be a problem: I haven’t forgotten what it was like to leak from all ends at once, even if Spiral’s toys kept me from feeling the pain of the muscle cramps.

When they were finished, they turned Otto to face her. His eyes were open, but no one was home. Repressing a shudder, she kept her eyes on one of the upper mouths. It did not bother to open or mime the words she picked out of the doctor’s mind.

The samples / are what you claim. / When should this / treatment begin?

“Soon. The doctors are getting his room ready on the medical level, and the lawyer is bringing his servant up to speed on the diet issues.”

The work is unfinished / but we sense the body’s / weakness and illness. This will / correct it, so the work may continue?

“Yes, and then we need to step it up – uh, work faster. I’d like have my device and get gone before he gets lucky and snaps something important with those random grabs.”

That will not happen / again. We are controlling / the destructive impulse / more effectively.

Privately, she thought, I noticed – and I know how, you sick tin freaks. “Good. Don’t forget your promise to make this belt thing work for me.”

Until the reactor can / be used, it is our sole function. This / weakness inhibits productivity / and must be assessed and repaired.

“Yeah, and it’s no fun for him, either.” She cocked her head to the side at a mental hail over their heads. “Well, that was the bell, let’s go.” When the machines did not respond, she sighed. “They’re ready for us upstairs. Geez, you’re sharing his brain, can’t you make as much effort as he was to bridge the language barrier?” Grunting in disgust as they stared at her, she waved for them to follow her to the elevator. “You better start learning some slang, because I’m sure as hell not taking Geek 101.”

~ ~ ~

It only took thirty minutes to get Otto into the special bed they’d prepared in his large private treatment room, but it felt like years to the hand-picked medical staff, herself, and the loyal Balfour.

“When did you make this contraption?” Rooke asked the chief surgeon, keeping her tone casual as the suspicious machines watched her.

Dr. Roznovsky looked grim. “Over a year ago, but Dr. Octavius would never touch it. He has a natural mistrust of my kind that has never abated, and restraints were out of the question.”

“They’re only fun in bed when you have a safeword. Can’t say I blame him – my mistrust of your kind hasn’t ‘abated’ either. Don’t get too relaxed, though; I’d bet they could get out of that if they wanted to.”

Unaware she heard him, he thought, If they try to escape it … they will damage their host body considerably.

Yeah, well, they don’t need to just to whack us – the damn things have a long reach.

The surgeon studied her appraisingly but did not respond.

Otto was lying on his back, a feat of engineering created by special technicians under the Russian doctor’s watchful eye. The rectangular slot in the bed was just big enough to permit the tentacles to slip through and around. Their telescoping ability was well known to the team, so the warnings these people had received should be taken seriously.

Rooke had eavesdropped on Rucker’s speech to them all as she and Otto had traveled up in the elevator. They were to keep their movements slow, calm, and deliberate – speak softly, and attempt to hide any nervousness they felt.

‘Nervousness’ – the lawyer turns comedian. The team is terrified, but they have balls of solid rock, no doubt. There isn’t enough ‘hazard pay’ in the world for this gig, though – I wonder if the old man knows how loyal they all are?

All around her, their thoughts were full of concern, and not just for their jobs or their necks. They believed in his dream of a better world and hoped to keep him alive to achieve it.

Only one of them, a young nurse, had been shocked with the knowledge that ‘Mr. Ollre’ was Doctor Octopus – the others had known for months or even years. The fact that she had been included in spite of that told Rooke that they had been selected not only for skill and daring, but for that quality of loyalty.

Rooke glanced over at the lawyer on the other side of the rigged hospital bed. You’re a clever bastard; maybe I should quit making an enemy out of you – just to be on the safe side. Smiling at the thought, she spoke to the surgeon again. “So it’s rounds of vitamins and minerals, no other drugs, you’ve got him rigged with tubes stem to stern in all the right holes so we don’t have to move him, strapped down, and ready to sweat to the oldies. Did I miss anything?”

“The straps are wired and automated; they will relax and constrict with his movements and even vibrate to tone the muscles when needed.”

“Damn.”

In her mind, the restless uncertainty of the machines made her smirk. They did not like their host body being strapped in. In spite of the chief surgeon’s attempt to keep their predicament a secret, it had begun to occur to them that if they wanted to leave the bed by force, they might bring only some of Otto with them.

These people won’t hurt him or you, she told them. If you could feel their emotions, hear their thoughts – they only want to make him healthy. They want him connected to you, too; without you, he can’t work the reactor and they all want that to go smoothly. All you have to do now is let him sleep and rest.

Do not use this sleep to / control us or free him. He / seeks to end, so we must / remain in control.

Don’t get your little Adamantium panties in a twist. Besides, he’s not likely to get a lot of sleep. Flushing the drug out of him is going to be more like a roller coaster ride – with really high-tech seat belts. Give it a few more hours, and he’ll be way too preoccupied with that to pay any attention to you or me.

Beneath the lie, she carefully strengthened the bond she’d been creating deep in Otto’s mind. His consciousness had been nearing a coma state for hours, and while it worried her, it also made her telepathy stronger.

She had forged the bond with the only thing she found that would make him reach out to her – his desire to kill her. The bright red star of it pulsed so far below the influence of the machines that they had not detected it.

He didn’t speak to her anymore with the confused and murderous mind-voice, and she suspected he was attempting to flee into the void to find an end. Soon enough, his body would yank him back, and then the real work would begin.

A slight touch on her shoulder pulled her back to the white room surrounded by blinking and beeping machinery. It won’t be long, Otto, and I’m so sorry it has to be done like this. “What?” she asked the surgeon, too wrapped in concern for the patient to mind that he had touched her.

“I’m going to have most of the staff pull back to the observation room when he wakes. Are you going to remain in the room and do you wish anyone to assist you?”

“Yes, I will – and let me have that nurse, the young one. What was her name?”

“Mary Fortunato.”

“Yeah, she’ll do fine. Tell her to keep near the door and do what I say.” If I space out, I’m busy, got it? Do not interrupt me.

He did not show his surprise at her mental warning and without the usual hesitation of telepathy newbies, he thought back at her, You won’t be. Good luck.

When the others left and the nurse came in, Rooke smiled at her to take the edge off of her fear. “Hi, can I just call you Mary?” Try not to react when I speak in your mind. Work on reacting only to what I say aloud. Okay?

“Yes … just ‘Mary’ is fine.”

She was afraid of a telepath’s power, too, but determined to help. You can talk to me in your head, I’ll hear you. Anything those metal brutes shouldn’t hear, think it at me. “So why did you want to be on this dream team?”

“Mr. Ollre – I mean, Dr. Octavius – he helped my son, Frankie. He lost his leg in a car accident last year and the doctor made a prosthetic for him that is nothing like anyone has ever seen before.”

“Cool. He’s a saint when he’s not busy being the devil.”

“When do we … start to help … or something…?”

“He’ll wake up any minute now, and then we just need to talk to him and monitor the machines, watch over him in general.”

“Those machines?” Her eyes tracked two of the swaying tentacles.

“No, the medical ones, that bank of beeping things along the wall. The tentacles are supposed to stay out of our way and let us help him but I need you to relay stuff to the others, through that talk box by the door. Plus, you can interpret the beeps and data, and I can’t.” Don’t go near a single damn one of those gadgets that are close to him, got it? Everything in this room can be read by Doctor Russia in the other room, at their control panel. You’re mostly here to cover the fact that I have something else to do in his head.

“Okay.” Mary’s mind voice was equally as timid as her audible one. I understand, Miss…?

Impressed that she cared to know her name, the mutant smiled with real warmth. Call me Rooke. You’re getting the hang of this, don’t worry about a thing.

On the heels of her reassurance, the nurse twitched and stifled a yelp of fear. Rooke turned in time to see the hazy confusion in Otto’s dark eyes turn into a glower of murderous hate. The tentacles had turned menacing too, and that was the cause of the nurse’s reaction.

Here we go, she thought, not bothering to send the words on to the nurse. Thinking about all that Xavier and Wolverine had taught her, Rooke prepared to deal with Otto and his machines – on three levels at once.

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

No. She IS the / work; we will / not allow her / to be damaged.

Her ‘damage’ repairs in seconds – no lasting harm would be done.

Becoming more aware of his body, he stiffened in shock; in response, the straps he had not noticed at first tightened without anyone approaching the bed. Fear and a horror of being restrained filled him even as the reaction made him aware of his ill-health, weakness, and the medical things they had done to combat it.

This is the final betrayal. You have allowed us to be roped and tied like a lab rat?

They intend no / harm to us. You are in need / of repair.

I didn’t know machines could be trusting fools. Perhaps you will learn the consequences when they saw you from beneath me.

The actuators did not react to the threat. Someone at least vaguely plausible must have worked hard to convince them that they were not to be removed.

He was not so attuned to his body that he could feel more than the needle that was already set in the vein of his left arm but as an unnatural sleep stole over him, he feared what they might be pumping into his blood from vials under the hellish bed.

It is not their poison. We / are going to send you back to sleep / to spare you this / while they work.

Otto tried to fight it, a terror of being unaware and helpless making his limbs writhe. The straps tightened farther to stop his resistance, but before he could open his mouth to scream, the actuators plunged him back into the void.

Blackness, but below it, a red light glimmered. Seeking it out, he sensed his enemy within it. You – come closer, mutant. Wielding metal weapons that were impotent, being only in the mind, he meant to harm her in any way he could – until she morphed into Rosalie.

Otto, I’m going to help you break free of them.

You. Are not. My wife.

Rosie’s face winced at the vicious tone of his thought but the mutant did not give up the charade. Speaking again with his wife’s voice, she said, Your medical staff is going to get you off of the morphine while I do my part. We’ve been at it for a while already, but there’s still more to do.

Behind her, he saw himself, the actuators rising to threaten, to kill.

You are not my wife; this is a trick, a lie. Show your face! Show your damn mutant face!

Rosie’s voice screamed.  As the machines fell to bludgeon her delicate body, Otto’s rage rose and twined around it. Unaware that his scream had erupted in the room that held his flesh, his mind forgot that the being was the mutant.

No! Stop this! You shall not harm her!

Directing his hate at his own image, he gathered his limitless will and waning strength to fight the machines.

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

Rooke woke with a start, disoriented and only vaguely aware that her body had been damaged and repaired – more than once. Nightmares were reluctant to fade, both the ones she’d created to help Otto fight, and the ones the machines had used against them both.

“What the hell … happened?” she asked, unsure who might reply.

“You’re awake!” Fingers, warm and gentle, touched her forehead as if testing for a fever.

It’s the nurse – Mary. “What happened?” she asked again. Opening her eyes, she added, “Why am I in the hallway?”

“I wanted to find a bed for you to rest in but Mr. Rucker wouldn’t hear of it. We dragged you out here because those tentacle-things were trying to kill you yesterday morning.”

“Yesterday?” Batting the woman’s hand away, she felt the soft, crumpled thing beneath her head and realized it was a white coat. With a grunt, she forced herself to sit up and handed the nurse her coat back. “Thanks for the pillow, but you guys shouldn’t have moved me.”

“But they were –”

“I fix pretty quick. How long has it been, are we past the seventy-two hour mark?”

“Yes, and then some. Dr. Roznovsky said the worst of it is over.”

“For the withdrawals, maybe – is the Doc awake?”

“No, not now. He fought the restraints and screamed himself hoarse – but the straps held.”

“The tentacles didn’t try to undo them?”

“Oh, they tried – when they gave up trying is when they went after us.”

“You’re in one piece?”

“Yes. You got between us when they went mad or they might have killed me. It was touch and go once or twice but I’m fine – I’m amazed you are.”

Rooke sighed. “I’m not amazed by it anymore, just grateful.” Accepting the woman’s help, she got to her feet and headed for the door to Otto’s room.

“Are you sure it’s – safe?” Mary asked.

“Doesn’t matter if it is or not. Stay here.”

Her mind swam with images and scraps of the war they’d waged in their heads – together and against each other. She didn’t care if Otto still hated her; it hurt too much to remember what he’d gone through to worry about that.

Pushing the door open, she was greeted by four agitated tentacles. As they lifted and opened their claw mouths to threaten her, she ignored them. Otto was waking.

He was drenched in sweat and shivering, his limbs drawn down tight by the straps as he instinctively tensed against them. Any portion of skin she could see was covered with goose bumps, and his muscles still twitched involuntarily now and then. The dark eyes that looked up at her were dilated and wary.

Picking random bits of information out of the minds of the men in the observation room, she learned that the nurse had risked life and limb to tend to her boss, though the tentacles had not attacked her as long as she was caring for him. They had attacked when Mary tried to remove their mutant enemy from their reach.

Mary?

Y-yes?

Thank you. Rooke tried to stuff all the warm gratitude she could into the thought. Not for her own rescue but for the nurse’s efforts to prevent Otto from choking on vomit, and for compassionately cleaning his face when the illness subsided. You took care of him in spite of the risks. I guess all the men were too busy keeping their own butts safe and snug.

Those things wouldn’t let them in, Mary answered, embarrassed for her superiors.

Fine, fine, have it your way. “Otto? Can you hear me?” Cracked lips parted, and she dared to come closer to hear his rasped whisper.

“This does not finish … what is between us.”

“That doesn’t matter now. Are they beaten down?”

“I am holding them, for now. I am … weak.”

“The chief white coat says the worst is over now. Try to relax and the straps will loosen a bit. When you feel a little stronger, we can get you out of this damn contraption. Then you can go do your relaxing in the Water Room.”

“No – the lab … now.”

“You can’t be moved now. Don’t worry, if you want to be a troglowhatsit, we can move you down there. They replaced the bed with a much tougher one, you’ll like it.” She waited for him to correct her misspoken word, but he didn’t seem to notice it or care. Sighing again when she saw the tentacles angling closer, she added, “Whacking people won’t get your strength back. Let the medical folks take care of you and I’ll leave you in peace. Deal?”

“No. You don’t leave me in peace … ever.”

“Hate to tell you this, but a lot of that was your buddies here, not me. All that bullshit about Rosie being a zombie and hurting you – that was them, too. If you don’t want to live, deal with wanting to die later. They won’t let you die and their way of keeping you down was to torture you with that crap. Stay in control and at least you can have your do-gooder company projects to keep your mind off of living.”

Shrugging to imply that it didn’t matter to her what he chose to do, she turned to leave. Holding her breath, hoping that the truth would sink in, she paused with her hand on the doorknob when his weakened voice spoke again.

“The agreement you made with the actuators … I will honor it. When it is done, this debt … will be repaid.” His words began to fade and exhaustion washed over her from his labored and ill-used body. “When it is done...”

“You want me gone, for good. You got it, old man,” she said, her voice flat.

~ ~ ~

Rooke stood before the window in the Water Room, trying not to feel Otto’s struggle. He continued to battle the machines for control as he slept in the small laboratory bedroom. If he started to lose, she’d jump in and assist – if not, she’d let him do it on his own.

Loneliness twisted in her. The endless waiting after the ordeal in the hospital room had almost been worse for her than the mental war she had fought with him for over six nights and days.

The nurse, Mary, was friendly and tried to be kind, as did the servant, Balfour, but Rooke found that she wanted solitude – even if it hurt.

At times, however, it became almost too much to bear. Reaching out through the thick glass, she tried to push her telepathy to its limits. Wolverine … can you hear me? Logan?

Rooke? What is troubling you, child?

Gasping, she drew back from the glass at the voice in her mind. It was not Logan – but it was all too familiar. Emma … it’s nothing. I’m fine. Where is Wolverine?

Emma Frost, formerly of the Hellfire Club, called the White Queen. She was now a teacher at the X-Men’s school – Rooke’s least favorite when she’d been there. The woman’s mind-voice sounded cool and aloof as always, even when she tried to sound concerned.

He has been busy – we all have. You are distressed. May I help somehow?

Yeah, tell him to hail me later when he can.

The blonde telepath attempted to answer her but Rooke severed the contact and slapped her newly improved shield into place. It muddied her sense of Otto, though, so she wouldn’t be able to keep it up for long.

“Damn mind witch. Why couldn’t I have netted Jean or Xavier? Jean doesn’t like me and Chuck tolerates me with that disappointed father act, but at least they’re better at respecting a girl’s privacy. She must have been scoping outward, too – there’s no way I managed to reach the X-Crib on my own steam.”

Flopping onto her back on the huge bed, she tilted her head back to watch the water moving down the wall fountain. The peace of the room only made her more restless.

“I shouldn’t be bothering Logan, anyway; God knows what he’s dealing with. ‘Busy’ to Emma could mean he’s in the bathroom or going toe to toe with Sabretooth. He’ll ring me if he can and maybe he’ll use Jean as the go-between; he never seemed that fond of the white witch, either.”

She fell into a fitful sleep, having not had much of it, but her nightmares followed her. Jerking awake again, she glanced at the clock Balfour had brought her.

“A fifteen-minute cat nap. Better a bit than none, I guess. Is it suppertime yet?”

Meals were taken with Balfour in silence, though once the lawyer had made an appearance. Rooke hoped it meant he was warming toward her. To celebrate that idea, she didn’t try to antagonize him.

~ ~ ~

Three days later, she was summoned down to the lab via a note from the servant. Wishing she could shoot the kamikaze butterflies in her stomach, she got into the elevator and hoped for the best.

Otto was sitting in a chair, supported by the tentacles as he inspected the belt device they’d been working on. All it took was a quick peek into his head to know that he still vied with the machines at times. He was technically in charge again but they had a stronger influence over his emotions than they had before.

Give it time – he’ll whip them eventually.

The new doors on the elevator matched the rest of the repaired lab – almost as if their epic destructive clash and her tunneling break-in had never happened.

One of the machines had tracked her approach, but the doctor didn’t turn to acknowledge her. “This is never going to work as long as it remains a separate object outside of your body. A belt can be removed and you can be removed from it as well, in any number of pieces Magneto might like.”

“Are you rested enough to mess with this?”

“That is none of your concern anymore. My staff is tending to my health.”

Annoyed, Rooke slipped a probe in and knew he was still weak when it succeeded. He’s refused any sort of pain meds, too. That could be good or bad, though they did come up with less addictive and less mind-altering alternatives. A whiff of poetry in his thoughts made her look at the area beside the computer, where a book had been left open. What is he reading?

“We will need to find a way to incorporate the design into your body.”

Rooke smiled in spite of herself. “I bet you’ve thought up a few ways to do that.”

“None that would complete the work for its intended purpose.”

Sighing, Rooke took up her old stool near him as a sense of déjà vu descended. Sitting down, one foot making it twist back and forth, she looked up at him. “The metal might be able to absorb it, but I have no idea how to make it do that, beyond holding whatever you are making close to me and asking it nicely.”

“Absorption at the surface would only leave you with one area that was not magnetic. I believe I can replicate what I did with the actuators but it will involve the introduction of other metals into your composite make-up.”

“What other metals?”

“Adamantium and titanium, and a few elements I would blend them with.”

“Both of those metals are magnetic as hell.”

“The other elements and the process nullify the magnetism. How it is achieved is not your concern.”

“Um, are you aware that Adamantium is not carried at the local market?”

“I have what I need here in the lab.”

“Oh, okay then. So how are they going to be ‘introduced’ into me? I assume it’s not a wine and cheese situation.”

For the first time, Otto turned his head to look at her. The expression was eager but not pleasant. “Small quantities will have to be made up and inserted, and then the flesh secured to prevent the anomalies from rejecting them.”

“I hate to spoil your fun, Doc, but I won’t feel it.”

~ ~ ~

Late that night, Rooke woke in the Water Room. She thought for a moment that she had heard the tentacles enter the penthouse but that had been the broken leftovers of her nightmare. She stared around her in the dark but the thing that had woken her was in her mind.

“It’s Otto – dreaming of Rosie.” Curling into a fetal ball, she held her knees against her chest. The desire for him had not abated and neither had her indifference to her own suffering. “Does it matter anymore if he catches me – or decides to ditch our deal?”

Between one moment and the next, she knew the answer. Breathing deeply, she stretched out and tried to relax. Her telepathy flared out and to her shock, it touched his waking mind.

Come down.

Why?

Do not invade my dreams wearing masks. I can see through them now. Come down to me.

He reeked of deception behind the thin attempt to appear inviting and Rooke recognized what he hoped to do with little effort. “Here’s the repeat question of the day: do I care?” she whispered. Knowing she didn’t, she told him, Wait a minute and I’ll be down. “I have to start unplugging him from Rosie sooner or later, after all,” she muttered, “may as well get it underway now. Whatever destructive mischief he’s dreamed up, I can take it.”

She got up and pulled on her bathrobe, tying it at her waist. Her hair was loose and getting a little longer. She let the platinum mass fall around her shoulders, determined to be as unlike Rosalie as she could manage.

The only lights on in the lab came from the elevator and the bedroom, both too dim to show her where Otto was lurking, but she didn’t need light to find him. Her telepathy had told her he was in the bedroom, dressed only in his robe, in an effort to deceive her.

I wonder how far he’ll go to reel me in – probably not far.

She had just found his looming figure with her eyes when the tentacles struck. One used its interior coil to wrap around her waist, shoving her back against the concrete wall two feet above the floor. When her arms flew back and struck the wall on either side of her head, the two upper tentacles popped their Adamantium spikes and lunged. The spikes pierced the black stones in her palms, shattering them.

Rooke screamed as the damage allowed her to feel and began to make her arms numb, immobile. Kicking out with her legs, she found nothing but the serpentine metal she could not harm.

Glaring down at him, she hissed. “I knew you weren’t in the mood to cuddle – planning on breaking your word?”

“No, I plan to start the process of fulfilling it.”

The spikes in her palms had stabbed straight through the concrete, and the rounded metal of them would not allow her stones to repair themselves.

Otto approached only after the fourth tentacle used its coil to trap her thrashing legs, wrapping tight around both ankles and pinning them to the wall. The attack had opened her robe, but she felt nothing from the doctor at the sight of her nudity other than a sense of enjoyment – that he’d succeeded in making her hurt.

His human hands held several metal objects, thicker at the centers and cut square on one end. The tapered ends were honed into blades.

“I’ve been working diligently on your problem and these are the solution.” Smiling up at her, he transferred the others to one hand and poised the first in his fingers, aiming the point of its blade under her heaving left breast. “The three in the upper and lower torso may hurt less but I expect the other four, needing to be inserted into the arms, may be worse. A pity.”

Her eyes filled with tears as the first was sliced into her pale and gray flesh. Gritting her teeth a moment, she gasped as it was pushed deeper. “I hope you’re … enjoying yourself, Doc. Later on, it’ll be my turn...”

After each bar blade of metal was stabbed into her and shoved in until it was out of sight, he covered it with a titanium strip of metal, beaten thin with holes in both ends. Wires looping around her torso at ribs and hips, and around her upper and lower arms, secured the strips like cyber-tech bandages.

It was over, for the first session at least, but the pain continued as she felt the foreign metal begin to be attacked by Spiral’s gifts.

It’s not as bad as the tank, she thought, clinging to that fact as she gritted her teeth to avoid screaming. You bastard, all bets are off, and fair play can go fuck itself – I’ll stick to my plan, but now it’s dirty pool all the way.

Rooke did not transmit her thoughts to him. Instead, she used a delicate probe to invade his mind once more. It slipped deep, propelled by her anger and pain, and plugged itself into the pulsing red bond star she’d left in his subconscious. Using the probe like a conduit, she began pumping things he wouldn’t like into his brain, engineering them to manifest in ways he’d try to kill her for later.

I hope you try, I really do. The more you try to harm me, the more this shit will replicate. Is it starting to work already, Doc? You look a little confused. Bastard. You’re too goody-goody at your core to beat me at the cruelty game. Lucky for you I have an agenda beyond just making you take yourself apart bit by bit! Just wait, old man. The next thing you stab me with might be what I wanted upstairs.

~ ~ ~

Sometime after the metal had begun to be broken down and assimilated inside her, Rooke had passed out. She woke with a start as Otto was fixing the wire on the thin titanium plate over the hole in her left forearm. He was concentrating on his knot work. The tentacle that had held her ankles had released them – it was moving to the floor to support his weight.

Sucking in a deep breath, she twisted and kicked out, both feet connecting with his abdomen. Off-balance and still too weak to support all of the machines at once, he toppled to the bed beside him, partially on top of the machines’ base. The upper tentacles were ripped backward, out of the wall and her pinioned hands. When the last machine released her waist, she fell and struck the floor.

Count the breaths … one … two … three...

The black stones were slower to respond, but as they started to mend, her shaking limbs began to feel stronger again. Shooting her rage directly into their bond like a shot of adrenaline to the heart, Rooke reached out from its red center and gripped the machines with the doctor’s own will.

When she sat up and struggled to her feet to stare down at him, his dark eyes were wide with shock. His machines would not move and could not help him.

“How –”

“I laid the groundwork while you were out cold in that hospital bed. You were right not to trust it, old man. A lot of nasty stuff can happen if you let yourself get tied down too hard.”

“Release me,” he said, his tone a low threat.

Leaning down, she wriggled her perfectly useable fingers in his face before opening his robe to the waist with one hand. The other hand trailed her fingers down his body to the sash of the robe.

“I’m going to let you up after I leave the room. I’m letting you up at all because you were fulfilling our bargain, however twisted the delivery method.”

“It’s not finished yet.”

“We’ll get back to it later – on my terms. Goodnight, old man. Sweet dreams...” Lifting and lowering, her hand cupped the soft terrycloth that covered his hard cock as it began to swell. “I’ll see you in them in a moment.”

He hissed as his emotions flooded with rage. When she turned and left him, he shouted at her to release him but she did not let go of the machines until the elevator had lifted her up away from him.

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

Otto did not open his eyes to glare at the machines. Anger pulsed at his temples in time with his headache but they were too logical, too static, to understand the physical and psychological nature of the problem.

Stop the / contact / and the affliction / will stop.

“I cannot stop it.”

How could he explain that he had tried? The force that had so effectively stopped her probes before had been their strength, their unceasing vigilance in his mind – but she had surpassed them somehow.

Around them, the lab was silent, lit only by a few computer screens. He had turned his chair around to lay his head over his crossed arms on the back of it. Within reach was a single small pill in a plastic vial, their latest offering to stop the pain in his ribs, neck, and back. It had sat there beside the water glass for three days.

Anger, an unbalanced / mind – these things / she said sever her ability / to connect with us.

“Do you really think we could get more enraged or become more insane? It would stop if you let me kill her.”

She is the work. When the work is / completed, after she faces / the mutant, we / can find her again.

“‘The mutant’ will likely kill her for us – I’d rather do that myself. She has proven she can stop us, control us. Wasn’t that the cardinal sin before?”

Do not think of this, it does not / serve the work. / The work waits; it is all that / matters until the reactor can be used.

“She is the work, as you said; if I touched her now, I am … afraid … of what she could do – or make me do.”

Thinking of it for only a moment brought a rush of lust to his body he couldn’t fight. Even his dreams had reversed themselves – the image of Rosalie becoming the wanton young mutant. She had imploded it, all of it – effectively stealing his damaged mind as surely as the machines had before.

She comes now. / We have the remaining / samples and braces ready to / complete the work.

“I doubt that is why she’s visiting.”

He didn’t move or look up, watching the elevator open and the mutant emerge through the ocular data of the two machines that had lifted to acknowledge the intrusion. Knowing she would do so, watching her approach, he still couldn’t help flinching when her hands touched his back. The fingers that toyed with his hair made him shudder.

“I wish you hadn’t let them cut it again. Did they use an actual mixing bowl to get it just right?”

“If you are here for the rest of your treatments, we are ready to begin. I expect it will be less traumatic this round.”

“Yeah, like I’d let you smash crystals again for the ugly sadistic fun of it. Got to hand it to you, though, I didn’t think about that fast enough to stop you. It should fetch you another ‘evil genius’ merit badge, at least.” She gave him an impish smile, knowing the tentacles would relay it to him. “No, I’m not here for that; I’m in no hurry – are you?”

She leaned over and kissed his shoulder, the simple contact through his robe setting his body on fire. Trying to block out the vision of her nudity the machines fed into his brain, he felt them twine around her – oblivious to her control or unconcerned about it?

“Otto, come to bed, it’s late.”

He winced again and closed his eyes. The words and cadence were Rosie’s, said to him so often with a similar caress. He had no doubt it was deliberate – yet mocking his wife’s love was not the worst she could do.

“This is revenge, to force me against my will?”

“I’m not what I used to be, just like you. It’s pointless to deny my basic self-serving nature, my predatory instinct, and I won’t waste time ‘acting contrary’ to it. If you’re useful to me, I’ll take what I need from you – isn’t that the speech you once handed me? Close enough, anyway. Come on, Doc, let’s go use each other.”

“You told me then I’d have a fight on my hands – I will discover how to fight this.”

“To quote you again, ‘I would expect nothing less.’”

Her power moved him because it could move the machines. She would have him, because the witchery she’d done to his mind played havoc with his urges. Could she control him enough to force the method along with the act?

“Doc, I can read you like a first grade primer. Be as brutal as you like – if you know how. It doesn’t matter to me.”

When he touched her, he tried to injure. The impulse fired but did not connect in his brain to the function of causing harm. Shock froze him for a moment as the lust she’d damned him with intensified.

“You’ve reordered the synapses... How is that possible?”

“A little something I learned from a less goody-goody telepath, one who doesn’t wear an X. Don’t worry, old man – it’s reversible, and you won’t get a hard-on if you smash anyone else – just me.”

Otto tried to tear the actuators and himself away from her but it was pointless – her insidious control went so far beyond them that even communication with them was blocked.

“You’re pissed, you’re in pain, and I’m going to have you anyway. Go ahead, Doc – take the only route I left you – make it rough.”

She drew them in and laid her body down before them. The metal bandaging was gone; her upper body had accepted the new anti-magnetic material – another possible weakness lost to him.

Dropped to his knees between her legs as she lifted them up, two tentacles supported him while the other two stripped away the robe. It hung limp along their lengths, half draped off of the bed and forgotten as he was led, by compulsion and frightening lust, to claim the pale body that opened to him.

Rage drove him to be cruel, showing him how to be vicious. Yet even as he took that path to defiance, he sensed that it only strengthened her hold on his unwanted desire. Constricting, like the infernal straps of the hospital bed that had subjected him to her will – the compulsion would not loosen though force.

The way out, then … is to become what you once were, he thought, the words twisting like smoke through a mind that was sinking further into madness. No! I cannot touch her with gentleness, cannot take her in passion. I am … I must… Rosalie … help me...

Chapter Text

The claim that has the canker on the rose
Is mine on you, man’s claim on Paradise
Hopelessly lost that ceaselessly he sighs
And all unmerited God still bestows
The claim on the invisible wind that blows
The flame of charity to enemies
Not to the deadliest sinner, God denies
Less claim than this have I on you, God knows

I cannot ask for anything from you
Because my pride is eaten up with shame
That you should think my poverty a claim
Upon your charity, knowing it is true
That all the glories formerly I knew
Shone from the cloudy splendour of your name

~ The Claim that has the Canker on the Rose (Joseph Mary Plunkett)

Sweet is pleasure after pain

~ Lines from Alexander’s Feast (John Dryden)

We walk the narrow path
Beneath the smoking skies
Sometimes you can barely tell the difference
Between darkness and light
Do we have faith in what we believe?
The truest test is when we cannot see
Can you tell me
Is there something more to believe in?
Or is this all there is?

~ Lines from It Can’t Rain All The Time (Jane Siberry)

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

 

Violent images flashed across the landscape of an insane mind, eclipsing its brilliance in rage. His hand lifted, fingers gripping her throat, but no matter how hard they squeezed, the flesh would not bruise, the neck would not snap. Hatred fired into lust as his brain betrayed him first, and then his body followed.

Thrusts as brutal as the useless grip on her throat, he felt the heat gather like electric shock across his lower back, curling deep in his gut until the ejaculate exploded within. Collapsing in exhaustion, his weight fell onto her slight form, but still the flesh did not bruise.

Her breath was as rapid as his but did she need it or was it a habit – infused into her brain like a psychosomatic response?

“Shit, Doc, does your brain ever just shut up?”

“Go,” he gasped out, panting, “to hell.”

“Oh, eventually, I probably will – if anyone ever figures out how to kill me; won’t be you, though, will it? Isn’t that how this started?”

“Let me go,” he whispered.

“Take your grip off my windpipe and I’ll consider it.”

With a twitch, his fingers released her. In the same instant, he felt her control slip away, draining into that red pulsing star in his mind where he couldn’t reach it, couldn’t tear it out. Abruptly his again, the actuators moved, levering his body away from hers to stand him on his feet again.

The mutant cyborg propped herself up on her elbows, her body still splayed before him in the cold subterranean room. Her black eyes roamed over his flesh, a wicked smirk lifting the corners of her mouth.

“Resistance looks good on you, old man. I admit I miss your other talents but it’s easier to let you be vicious – and I still get stuffed, so hey, it’s a win-win for me.”

“Such a pity your talents are too weak to usurp my higher functions.”

“Ooo, biting sarcasm. I’m not going to cry over it, Doc. I’m making do with your lower functions just fine.”

Turning away from her, his stomach in knots, he moved the tentacles to lift and replace his robe around his body. His fingers shook as they tied the sash. “We still have to complete the work – you won’t be able to fight your enemy until it is done.”

“You can’t wait for that, can you? Get me out of your … hair? I’d worry about whether or not you were capable of sabotaging my magnetic immunity but for that ‘glorified erector set’ of yours. Their work ethic is too pure to allow you to screw me over that way. What a pity, huh?”

“A great pity.”

“Guess what? I’m not in such a hurry to paste Mags anymore. Twisting your murderous little impulses into some pretty awesome sack sessions is a hell of a lot more fun.”

Growling under his breath, he walked out of the room, the actuators crunching into the floor around him, supporting him. He entered the elevator and rose to the penthouse level, intent on washing her off of his skin.

I will find a way … there must be a way...

~ ~ ~

Night covered the city, its lights rivaling the stars overhead. Otto sat on his low stool close to the wall of glass, a nearly empty bottle of Jägermeister in his hand. Smoke curled up from the cigar clenched in his teeth.

Balfour had brought him the vices, and then left to follow orders: turn off the music in the penthouse and disappear.

The silence was a balm on his tormented mind but he knew the momentary peace and solitude wouldn’t last. The mutant was asleep in the Water Room but soon enough, she would seek him out again.

He resisted the urge to go in there, to attempt to murder her in her sleep. It had failed the last two times and a third attempt was foolish.

She had taken over his life, his mind, his body. He had tried to avoid meals, but then she would claim the actuators and drag him to the table. Her power couldn’t force him to eat but he knew allowing his body to be weakened again would not help him to break her control. She didn’t try to make him sleep but the exhaustion of her carnal hungers drove him to it and when it happened, she invaded his dreams.

This creature wears your mask, Rosalie – uses your voice to soothe, to tell me to live on without you. I cannot, I will not … your memory is all the peace I have left.

Lifting the hollow liquid comfort to his lips, his fingers plucked the cigar away so he could drain the bottle in one long pull. Dropping it, he let it shatter on the wood floor, heedless of his bare feet. Drawing smoke into his lungs again, he blew it out at the glass.

There is only one way out.

No. / We do not / wish to / end.

I cannot be subjugated to this horror. I want … to be with my wife.

He pushed on them with force all at once, his teeth crushing the cigar. One of them moved, lifted, twining in resistance. Bending his will to it, he shoved at it, his spirit flooded with triumph when the Adamantium spike shot out, weaving beside his face.

The vision formed, leading it, pushing it: one swift slash across the throat and the smoke would flow from the wound … and then the blood would follow.

Injury to self does not trigger the false lust and they are all gone or asleep, they cannot stitch it fast enough to save...

All of the machines became agitated, another rising from the floor. It opened as if to menace him, and then his sense of them snapped off so fast that he gasped aloud. Both of the weaving tentacles fell, striking and scarring the floor, crushing the shards of jagged glass.

“That’s a new trick – too bad for you that they don’t want to cash out.”

Otto stared through the wall of glass, his brain quickly starting up a methodical count of the lights. Beneath the count, he tried to track her presence in his mind, to follow it to its source.

“Not going to fly, Doc – and your numbers can’t mask what you’re doing.”

He turned his head to glare up at her where she stood in the doorway of the Water Room. The sight of her slender nakedness prompted a desire to strike her, to break her, which fired uncontrollably into the horrifyingly familiar shuddering lust.

“They alerted you...”

“Nope, they’re just really loud when they’re fighting for their weird misbegotten ‘lives’.”

He tried to fight the lust, tried to will his body to rise, to leave. His vision swam, a dizziness making him weak. Leaning forward, his palms slammed down onto his robed thighs as his stomach lurched.

“Damn, you’re wasted. Is this the latest passive resistance ploy? Suicide of the liver?”

“You … cannot...”

“Yeah, I can. I think I will.”

“No.”

“Nice try, Doc.”

His eyes misted, illness threatening. Drawing in a deep breath, the cigar falling from his lips, he let it go in a hiss. Fighting her, thoughts burning with rage, he gasped again as the lust crested, making his hands shake harder.

“Please … do not … do not do this...” Wetness on his face, breath coming shallow and fast, he felt his head spin. The old horrific void rose up but before he fell into the shards of glass, the blackness claimed his mind.

~ ~ ~

Otto snapped awake and found himself on the wide divan in the Water Room. The sun glowed in a line through the gap in the drawn curtains. The lawyer and surgeon were leaving the room. He opened dry lips to call them back, to tell them what she was doing to him, but could only gasp at the feel of her grip on his mind.

Her fingers wiped his forehead with a cool, damp cloth, the touch making him shudder. A headache bloomed, thumping painfully across the path of her fingers to stab into his temples.

Turning from his side to lie on his stomach, he buried his face in the pillow to be free of her touch.

“I know you won’t believe this, but I’m not really enjoying making you suffer – not like I thought I would after the crap you pulled in the lab.”

“Then let me go,” he murmured into the pillow. “I will fulfill our bargain – but let me go...”

“If I do, you’ll kill yourself.”

“Why does it matter to you if I live or die? You wanted the death of Magneto – I will help you achieve that. Afterward, why does it matter...?”

“Damn you, Otto – you’re the stupidest fucking genius I’ve ever met.”

Alarmed, he turned his head back and opened his eyes to look at her. She wore a thin crimson silk robe, her platinum hair loose around bowed shoulders. The anger on her face was split by the tracks of tears down her pale cheeks.

“Answer me – why does it matter? Are you going to claim to care, that your initial sly dream attacks dressed as my wife made you feel for me?”

She looked away. “Yes.”

“Wearing her face, her body, taking from me my love for her, that is why you care?”

“Yes,” she whispered. “It was blinding. I never knew it could be like that –”

“It was rape, you stupid sick abomination!”

The actuators moved, curling, striking the floor around the divan to help him rise onto his forearms, the right one bandaged in white gauze. His fingers dug into the blankets.

Her head whipped around to glare back at him, tears falling. She opened her mouth to speak but he shouted over her.

“What you’ve done … is a violation I would not have thought could be done! I would rather be back in the grip of these machines, drowning in their nightmare visions of horror than to be used, humiliated, violated...” Sucking in a sharp breath, his voice dropped to a cruel low whisper. “You touch my flesh and it makes me sick … it makes me wish even more for death. Is that what you wanted? Is that the pinnacle of your revenge? Why seek revenge on me – for fighting you, attacking you, when I discovered you were raping my body and my mind?”

“No, I –”

“You thought the release would change me? You believed the mechanical pleasure of a manipulated and helpless body would breed, what – love for you? Damn you to hell, you’ve made me hate everything I once loved. You’ve made me want to die and you pollute my mind to rape my flesh, over and over, only to cry for me now, to cry for me – or for yourself?” His voice rose again until he was screaming into her shocked face. “God in Heaven, I want your blood on my hands and it’s already happening – I feel it – you’ll have me rutting again like a mindless bull, do it! Open your damn legs and do it to me again, you foul fucking mind-witch! Do it!”

“Stop it!”

The rage hit the redline and he rose, her corrupted rewiring of his synapses moving flesh and metal at once. He grabbed her arms with the mouths of the tentacles and yanked her beneath him. Shaking hands tore her knees open wide, his body falling onto her.

She seemed to forget that she could control them and him, her slight figure beginning to struggle to get free. Yet what she had done to his brain still worked against them both as his burning need to harm her drove his engorged cock to slam inside her brutally.

He felt the intensity of it bind him down harder and when he lifted his hand from the divan, fisted it, and smashed it into her cheekbone, the shot of renewed lust ripped his breath away.

Bringing his face in close to hers, watching her alien metal repair the bone that his fist had cracked, he gasped for air. His voice a low guttural thing, he muttered at her ear, “This is what you’ve gained with your witchery – isn’t it what you wanted? Come on, dirty little abomination – arch your back like a bitch in heat. What, silence and tears? Are you beginning to regret the monster you’ve made of me?”

“Otto, please … please stop...”

“I remember begging you to stop; you wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t passed out. Do not use my name like you care for me. This is what your meddling has made.” Punctuating each word with a harsh and violent thrust, he ground into her ear, “Don’t – you – like – what – you’ve – made?”

“Stop it, you fucking bastard!”

Her power covered his mind like a vise and squeezed, tearing his control away from flesh and metal, the pain of it almost knocking him unconscious. Her body moved, far stronger than it looked, and her hands rose to shove his chest up and away from her.

Tearing his thick cock out of her body, she threw him to the floor where he crashed down on top of the tentacles.

Breathless and wracked with the pain in his throbbing head and back, he laid still, his scattered thoughts vainly hoping that she might kill him.

Yet the creature above him sat up merely to hold herself tightly, her sobs rocking her slight form.

Slipping into his devastated mind was a simple thought, I had forgotten … she is … so like a child. “Rooke,” he whispered, using her name for the first time in a span of days his fogged brain had lost count of. “I will beg if I must. Please let me die.”

Sniffing, she wiped the back of her hand under her nose before both hands lifted to cover her face. “No.”

“Why persist on a path that will destroy us both? Release me, Rooke.”

“No, damn it. No!” She rose, nearly stumbling off of the divan. Pulling the torn open robe closed, she fled from the room.

Otto moved when he felt her control snap away and recede. His rage flagged and failed him in the darkening depression that wasted his spirit, but as it faded, it did not set his body free of the carnal need.

Desperate to deny what was happening, his hand grasped his tumescent cock and stroked it once. In all the time since his wife’s death, it was something he had never done. The mutant’s torture had changed his body, made it remember what it used to have in love, what it used to crave.

“Rosalie, my love, my life … help me … let it be your face again, your love…”

He tried to gather her image in his thoughts but the memory of her slipped just out of reach. Cold terror flooded his veins. Those memories had only been clear again while the mutant was giving them back to his fractured mind.

“God, no … no...” Tears rose and slipped down, their salt bitter on his lips. His hand opened with a spasm and let his false desire slide out away from limp fingers.

Hopeless, thoughts numbed and pushed beyond all pain, he strove to lift just one of the metal brutes, tried to pop its spike. They wouldn’t understand this, or what it would do. He tried not to consciously form the thought, the desire, to use it to shear the offending thing away from his body.

The actuator rose, twining, the shining shaft of the spike snapping out and angling down.

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

Rooke crouched on her knees in front of the wall of glass, the sun hot on the red silk at her back. Holding herself tightly, she sobbed, trying not to be sick.

Her thighs were smeared and stained with the sticky black substance that sluiced, pounding, through her veins. Her alien metal had already repaired what he had torn but the realization that she had never felt the pain he’d tried to inflict only made her feel sick again.

Only his words had been capable of hurting her, his words and the fearful insane hatred in his beautiful dark eyes.

Abomination … and it’s true. I chose this, he didn’t. My injury was done to me but I told Spiral yes. Otto was made what he is by an accident, an accident that should have killed him. He’s had no choice. Instead, he’s tried to find a way to live, until I took all of his other choices away from him. Is it revenge? No, I wanted to break him from his Rosie, so I could take her place. I wanted to give him a reason to live – but I’ve only given him a will to die, worse than before I ever came here.

Something distant and cold tugged at her thoughts, alien and strange.

“What is...? Otto! No!” She lurched to stand and fell. Realizing she’d never reach him in time, she sliced into his head and yanked his will away from him once more. Panting, she struggled to her feet, mentally forcing the gleaming spike away from its host.

Gripping the wall in the doorway, she looked down in horror at his heaped and now slack body on the floor beside the divan. The tentacle he’d tried to use fell away, striking the wall and tearing great gouges in it before it struck the floor over his head.

Rushing over to him, she went down on her knees, her hands on his hips. His heavy frame trembled at her touch, the blank void in his open eyes making her snatch her hands up away from him again.

Carefully pulling up the edges of his thick black bathrobe, she covered what he had attempted to maim. Tying the sash, she marshaled her thoughts and used the tentacles to lift him, laying him down gently on his side on the rumpled blankets of the divan.

Turning to go around and sit where she could watch over him, she startled to see his mute servant standing in the doorway. The young man was pale, worry for his boss plain on his frightened face. He twitched when she spoke in his mind.

I stopped him. Would you... Please bring us some of that wine, the gold stuff? I’m going to watch him, don’t worry.

What are you doing to him?

I know you didn’t hear a word we were saying, she thought back at him, suspicion making her tone wary.

They’ve been destroying things lately – I feel the vibrations when they do. I know how he looks when … when he tries to kill himself. He’s been angry with you, it’s … terrifying. Aren’t you supposed to keep him from wanting to do that? Mr. Rucker said –

I’m trying, damn it. Please go get the wine – and two glasses? Highball glasses, none of that flimsy flute crap. Keep Rucker out of this, too, got it?

After he brought the wine on a tray and set it near her on the nightstand, she dismissed him with a look. Pouring the golden liquid into both glasses, she drank one down, replaced it on the tray, and held the other.

Watching him closely, she loosened her grip on his mind. Ready to stop him if he tried to injure himself again, she slowly allowed him to come back to consciousness.

The blank look in the eyes turned dark and when they found her, they narrowed, his lips pulling into a grimace over white teeth. His face still showed the tracks of tears.

Rooke took a deep breath. “I’m –”

“Do not try to say the word ‘sorry’ to me,” he whispered, low and menacing.

“Why did you try to do that? Instead of just stabbing yourself in the eye? I might not have been quick enough for that.”

“A lack of foresight.”

“Otto...”

His eyes clouded, closing in pain. “Do not use that name. You don’t have any right to it.”

“I was wrong, okay? I admit it – but now I’m afraid to change it, to … release you.” She moved the hand that held the glass closer to him.

“Please don’t … don’t touch me.”

“I won’t, but here, drink this, okay? Can you sit up?”

“Can’t you make me do it?”

“I’m done making you do things – except for stopping you if you try that again. Please drink?”

He stared back at her warily until the tentacles moved, obeying his will. They helped him rise, helped prop him against the curves of two of them, the others finding the floor to distribute their weight away from his back. The grasping end of one of them he was leaning on reached to take the glass, raising it to his lips. Drinking slowly, he kept his eyes on her.

The tentacle lowered again, snaking across his lap to hold the glass, as if trying to protect his body.

“Stop it ... break it,” he whispered, swallowing hard. His trembling hands laced over his stomach.

“Stop what?”

“It still burns, the synapses… Stop.”

“I’m… I’ll have to work on untangling that. It’s easier to mess up than to … fix. Your brain’s a travesty right now, too, if you hadn’t noticed. It’d be better to wait until you’re a bit calmer.”

“I will be calm if you leave me in peace.”

Rooke studied him for a long silent moment. “I will go … if you’ll try to sleep? No stabbing or I’ll stop you, but if you sleep, I’ll leave the room.”

“Do not invade my dreams.”

She sighed as she rose. “I won’t.” Going to the door, she murmured, “Do you want … to dream of your wife?”

Staring back at her for a moment with such a chilled gaze that she shivered, he slowly closed his eyes. “My wife is dead.”

Rooke fell onto the couch outside of the Water Room. Drawing her knees up, she wrapped her arms around her legs and rested her chin on her knees. Watching the day brighten the room, she let her tears fall quietly.

~ ~ ~

Balfour woke her in the evening with a tentative touch on her shoulder. Almost in a panic as she sat up, she mentally reached for Otto. He was still asleep, and had been all day.

Too preoccupied with monitoring the doctor, she didn’t bother to speak in the servant’s mind. Signing her question, she asked, “What is it?”

He signed back to her that the evening meal was almost ready but he wasn’t sure if he should wake Dr. Octavius.

“No, don’t – let him sleep as long as he can. I’m surprised I can even get hungry ... but I am.” Looking down at her rumpled silk robe, she sighed. Signing again, she added, “Sorry – I’d get dressed but my clothes are in there with him and I promised I’d give him some space.”

He turned away and picked up something off of Otto’s stool near the massive window. It was a small folded pile of her clothes. Offering them to her, he signed that the meal would be ready in a few minutes and left her to return to the dining room.

Shaking her head, Rooke held the clothes to her chest and took a deep breath. He had cleaned up the broken glass from the liquor bottle sometime during the day, too. Getting up, Rooke stripped off the robe and began pulling on the underthings, jeans, and black buttoned shirt he had fetched for her. Leaving the robe on the floor, she headed for the dining room in her bare feet.

“Good evening, Miss Dryden,” the lawyer greeted her.

She looked up and tried not to jump when she saw him sitting there. “Mr. Rucker. Did you get lonely downstairs?”

His elbows were on the table in front of his place setting, his fingers forming a steeple as he observed her.

“Dr. Octavius missed a board meeting this afternoon; Balfour was kind enough to fill me in as to why he was absent.”

“I bet.” Rooke sat at the opposite end of the table from him, in the chair Otto usually occupied.

Balfour kept coming in and going out, puttering about in preparation for the meal to come.

“To say I am concerned is an understatement. You seem to have found your way back into my employer’s bed, but I am not convinced that he wants you there. Certainly, he was not pleased the first time you managed it.”

“What we do in his bed isn’t any of your business.”

“Ah, but the doctor is my business, you see. His company has been grateful for your assistance in freeing him from the grip of those beastly machines, but I suspect your efforts have not been in his best interests since then. If, for instance, you have managed to subjugate him telepathically somehow, do not assume that power over him means you have any over me or over this company. We are here to protect him, Miss Dryden; I am here to protect him. If I perceive you to be a threat, I can and will deal with you.”

“What makes you think I can’t change your mind for you?”

His smile was thin and cruel. “If you were that strong, you would not have needed our help to free him before. I understand his … strained faculties … and strength of mind are a challenge to your talents. I assure you, my mind is quite beyond your ability to control.”

Rooke touched his thoughts with a careful probe but only got a slight disturbing whiff of them before his mind broke it. What little she had sensed sliced into her with a cold fear.

“You’re a sadistic bastard, aren’t you, Mr. Rucker? How many badges only wish they could get a bead on your criminal ass?”

“Many, in five different states and two countries overseas – I’ve left bodies where they’ll never be found, and only some of them were killed for Dr. Octavius. Tell me one reason why I shouldn’t have you join in their fate? You may be a challenge to kill, but given enough time and – inventiveness – I am confident that a way could be found.”

She was about to give him an angry threat or two in reply, but then they were both surprised by the crunching and vibrating approach of the doctor.

Grim-faced, his mind leaking righteous determination, Balfour entered the room again and pulled out the chair between them, in the center of the long table.

Otto entered behind him, still wrapped in his bathrobe and depending almost entirely on the machines to move him. He sat heavily in the chair without a word, but signed what he wanted to his servant.

Balfour went to the sideboard to pour him a whiskey in a heavy crystal glass and fetched a fine cigar out of a carved cedar humidor. Lighting it for him as he puffed, the young man retreated to stand at the door where the doctor could see him if he needed anything else.

Blowing smoke across the table, Otto turned his head to face his lawyer. “Miss Dryden and I are coming to a new understanding, Hollis, as of this morning.”

Rucker stared at his arm. “Your cuts are closed.”

Rooke glanced down; the gauze was missing. Shocked, she noticed a spider web-thin tracing of gray lace patterns here and there on the flesh of his right forearm.

“I used a powered sample of her metal to heal the puncture wound I – acquired – when she left us before. A remarkable and ingenious substance, is it not?”

“Otto, what is happening here? Is she a threat to you in any way?”

“I am capable of dealing with one mutant waif, I assure you. As for what business she has in my bed, surely you aren’t the man to judge, considering some of your hunting hobbies.”

Rooke held her breath and her tongue. Rucker looked away from the doctor long enough to glare at her, sure she was influencing his boss somehow. Locking stares with Otto again, the two men gauged each other in a tense silence.

Watching them both, her thoughts started a slow spin. What the hell is he doing? He’s getting his attack lawyer off my back? Why? Instinct screamed at her to watch out; he had to be plotting something and it probably wouldn’t go that well for her, no matter what he was feeding the lawyer. This morning, you were a broken man, Otto. I’m not sure what you are now.

Amazed, she listened as the doctor asked the lawyer to recap for him the topics of the board meeting he had missed.

When Balfour brought out their plates from the carved sliding doors of the dumbwaiter, he served his boss first but the doctor only nodded to him, keeping his attention on Rucker.

~ ~ ~

Rooke was silent throughout the meal, picking at it more than eating it, half afraid the servant or the lawyer might try to poison her. Their nerve gas hadn’t worked, but these people had been scouring the earth for tritium and found a lot of other rare and deadly things along the way.

None of the men looked at her or spoke to her, the other two seeming to follow the doctor’s lead. Reading them was pointless. Rucker’s mind was a steel trap, almost harder to crack than Wolverine’s, and Otto’s thoughts were fractured and strange.

For a nervous moment, she almost feared that the tentacles had regained control of him, but there was no prominent scent of them in the chaotic morass of his brain. Surprisingly, he appeared to be suppressing them as effectively as if he’d found another chip to stick behind his neck.

Eavesdropping in the servant’s head was easy but useless; he knew nothing about his boss’s current condition. Balfour was simply relieved to see him up and taking charge again – and he had woken him to be there, so that he could speak with the lawyer.

After two solid hours of shop talk, punctuated by the servant cleaning up around them, Rucker finally stood. Otto did not, but waved the servant to his side.

His hands were not trembling anymore as he signed his request to Balfour. “Go with Mr. Rucker, please – I wish to have a private talk with Miss Dryden. You may return in the morning.”

The young man looked worried, but nodded and moved to the door.

“Otto, I hope you know what you’re doing,” Rucker said with a glare at Rooke. “The boy is convinced she’s been making an ass puppet out of you for weeks. If you aren’t present for the meeting tomorrow –”

“I will be, Hollis. If I’m not, feel free to storm up here and remove any part of her you can manage to sever.”

“That would be more than you’d think, missy,” the lawyer threatened her, glaring at her smirk.

Otto’s smile was cruel. “Just be sure to save the pieces you acquire if it comes to that, will you? I’ve only scratched the surface of the worth of her component minerals.”

The lawyer turned his glare on his boss for a moment, unsure if he was teasing or serious. Then he grunted his disapproval and turned away, the mute servant on his heels.

When the elevator carried them down, Rooke reminded herself not to relax just yet. She had turned to watch them leave, standing in the doorway of the dining room. Behind her, the doctor was rising out of his chair.

She turned back to speak to him when he came at her, backhanding her across the mouth. The blow spun her, smashing her lower back into the edge of the table, a spray of her black blood dotting out over the polished wood.

Shocked, she felt the metal move to repair her dislocated jaw. Her tongue flicked out and licked the dark blood from her lips.

“For a guy who doesn’t want to be touched, you’re making some bad choices, old man. I haven’t taken the violence whammy out of your brain, yet – or did you forget about that?”

He moved faster than she could react, his human hands grabbing and lifting to toss her up onto the table on her back. Two of the metal brutes pinned her arms down as he advanced.

She was about to kick him, when the other two tentacles lifted and peeled his bathrobe away. His attack had sharpened what he’d tried to carve away and she couldn’t think when she saw it, thick and ready – and still stained dark by her black blood.

Reaching out, his expression unreadable, his hands worked to open her jeans. The snap of a spike sounded and she growled as it stabbed down and cut the denim away, the razor point of it merely scratching her smooth skin. The fingers dropped, touched her, and she sucked in a sharp breath at the shock of pleasure they offered.

Breath coming faster, she didn’t question opening to him, sure he couldn’t damage her before she could pin his brain and stop it. Closing her eyes, her head turned to press her cheek onto the cool wood.

When the head of his cock touched her, she braced herself for the violence of it but it slid in slow, pulled back and almost out, and then sank deep again. With a smooth control and easy strength that she’d almost forgotten, surprising pleasure grew.

“What … why…?”

Her eyes opened and then widened seconds before his fist struck her face, fracturing the jaw. She tasted the sickening black blood before the metal moved, her chest burning as the lights there glowed bright. Forced by his fouled mind, his thrusts turned rough.

Rooke reached for his thoughts with her power, but then he withdrew, his hands slamming down onto the table on either side of her hips. He bent down, and in the shock of his mouth closing on her slick folds, she forgot to claim his will.

Gasping out, she writhed as his unbelievable tongue worked her close to her climax in moments. She tried to lift her hands, her fingers wanting to touch the thick brunette mop of his hair, but the vice of the machines did not release her. She began to moan with lust, but then he rose, leaving her abruptly on the edge. Pushing inside again, his hatred obliterated the pleasure he’d built, his thrusts again seeking to tear her.

“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed at him. “I should fucking lobotomize you!”

Even as she said it, his hand moved down, found where they were connected, and began to build pleasure once more, his cock slowing to allow his fingers access. His heavy body curled over her, the two free tentacles moving fast to support him, their mouths opening to slam onto the floor. Their lengths undulated, using their strength to help him thrust. His bangs brushed her chin as he worked them both back to the edge and she felt him come, felt the explosion of his breath on her throat. One more thrust, and she would follow.

Wrenching back up and away, his face split in a cruel grin as he stepped back, letting his spent cock pull free.

Glaring, she panted. “I don’t know what your game is but it stops now.”

“Does it? A gentleman should never leave a lady wanting.”

One of the machines let go of her arm and darted down, its mouth closing, the muzzle of it compacting into a narrow long pipe. It bent, and before she could scream, it took his place and thrust inside her body, far too much of it trying to bury itself inside of her. She tried to rise, still pinned by her other arm, her hand grabbing the thing that had entered her in his stead. Just as it might have torn her wide, it backed up, and buried itself again.

Rooke wanted to fight, wanted to stop him, but then something else inside moved, clicked, and spun: and the wash of pleasure stole her will away along with her breath. When she could fight for air in starved lungs, she did scream, but it was a sound of mind-numbing lust.

She knew the spike was a very real threat, knew it was long enough to pierce her abdominal cavity, but the pleasure blinded her to any thought of stopping him. Forcing her watering eyes to open and look up at his face, she was stunned to see there the same absorbed expression he wore often in the lab.

Her climax nearly tore away her sanity, building and breaking, building and breaking. She cried out when the hellish machine left her body, blurred vision trying to see the man who still stood between her spread legs, his hands fisted at his naked flanks.

The tentacles all lifted at once after the last one to grip her arm released her with a snap. The doctor looked down on her once more, his face twisting with cruelty – and then he turned away and left her, the machines moving to help him walk.

Rooke lay there panting, the muscles of her stomach and thighs starting to cramp. Rolling to her side, she felt the shreds of her jeans fall farther down her legs as she pressed her face to the smooth wood and tried to breathe.                                                                                                                                                                       ************************************************************

We have / found it, / yes? / The key...

“Yes, I believe we have; now to discover how to use it best – and when.”

Wincing as he touched it, Otto let the hot water wash away the black fluid from his cock and thighs.

Do not harm. We / have agreed. / The key, / then the work.

Dropping it to let it hang, he allowed the many jets to fill his lungs with steam, the heat and massaging pressure on his skull, neck, and back, easing both his headache and his pain.

“I will not die a slave to her perverse lusts. After it is done, then we shall see … what is left of me.”

She could not control / us when we / entered her. When, / how?

“Not ‘could not’ – make no mistake, she could have. She didn’t. Pleasure blinds her, makes her forget, and makes her weak. Mix that with the pain and violence she expects and we will find our chance.”

Now / she / suspects / us.

“I know. It means a masquerade is needed.” Drawing in a deep breath, he released it in a sigh. “For the first time, I am grateful that Rosie is slipping away from me. I would never want her to see, to know … what I must do.”

~ ~ ~

Otto worked in the lab, compounding and forging the last set of spikes that would render the mutant cyborg immune to magnetism. The thin metal plates and wire that would hold them in place until her body assimilated them were spread out on another table nearby.

So far, she hadn’t consented to continue with the treatment since he’d immobilized her and begun the process without her consent. That morning, she had finally acquiesced to let him gauge the effect of magnetism on her arms and upper torso.

She watched him now from across the open space behind his chair, one booted foot on the wall, her arms crossed over her chest. She wore the Catholic schoolgirl costume of miniskirt, shirt, and cardigan that she had acquired to entice him long before. He hadn’t turned but one of the actuators weaved over his head, observing her as warily as she was them.

“With the latest test a clear success, we have only to complete the procedure … when you are ready.”

“What’s your game, Doc?”

“I hope to spirit you on your way to trouble another man’s existence; afterward, I will change the locks and possibly have the entire building scrubbed.”

“Can’t change the locks on your noggin. That’s not what I meant, though, and you know it.”

He sighed, his chin dropping to his chest. “My medical staff does not include a psychologist but I have the opinion of Dr. Rosenberg, who, like many of my staff, has had his share of odd demons to exorcise. He postulates that a body once accustomed to regular physical release may develop a craving for that release after the stimuli are reinstated.”

“Wow. What the hell did you just say?”

“Your abuses combined with the reordering of my brain’s synapses for pleasure and violence have reminded my body of what it used to have rather often, which can make it form an addiction to the act itself. The base mind, the id, works on the pleasure principle: it merely wants – food, warmth, sex. It is often unhindered by the ego or superego in my mind due to the damage it endured in the original accident with the actuators.”

“Translation: getting some makes the bod want to get more. See how short and punchy mine was?”

When she moved away from the wall and approached, he gritted his teeth and prepared to act his part. She ignored the agitation of the actuators and moved within their reach to place her hands on his shoulders. Her palms rubbed the thick black cable knit sweater for a moment before her fingers began to toy with his hair. She bent closer, the piercing on her lower lip brushing the outer edge of his ear.

“So why did you try to cut it off?”

“I am far too intelligent to be ruled by my id and since it seems to be what you want, if it were gone, perhaps you would be, too.”

“Middle of the night, a stunt like that – you’d have died, old man.”

“That was an acceptable outcome.”

“Wasn’t ‘acceptable’ to your pets, here; you had them on the ropes, but their squeals got my attention just in time. You’re wrong, though – your dick isn’t the only thing I want; anyway, without the rest of you, it wouldn’t be much fun.”

“Why do you persist –”

“I’m not sure, really,” she interrupted. Her hands slid off and down to his chest, her cheek pressing against his. “A wise man once told me to find someone who wanted me, not some ghost he lost ... but I’d rather have you. Isn’t there some way we could compromise?”

He couldn’t suppress the shiver as her lips kissed his scruffy cheek. He waited to feel her control in his mind, his stomach knotting, but it didn’t happen.

“I’m not going to make you, Doc. I’d rather help you want to. Humor me … let your id come out and play.”

The actuators moved, turning the chair. The mutant stepped back, but then advanced, sensing no overt resistance in his thoughts. Otto was sitting slouched at the front of the chair with his knees open, the roots of the machines bowed around the back of the chair. They arranged themselves around them both, prepared to support him.

He watched as she sank down to her knees in front of him but when her hands reached to open his slacks, he closed his eyes, unwilling to witness it as she drew the thing out. With the actuators braced on the floor, he was spared their ocular data as well.

Metal touched it, the ring in her lip, and then her mouth took it in – deep. In moments, it hardened, eliciting a pleased muffled groan from the mutant. He knew it could be categorized as a mechanical stimulus response, something that did not require consent or desire to achieve it, yet even as he recited those facts in his mind, he was not prepared for how it felt. Drawing in a sharp breath, he kept his eyes closed tight, his fingers gripping the armrests of the chair.

Abruptly, the sick memory of the nightmare struck his thoughts: Rosalie kneeling before him, her mouth spiked with shards of glass. Shocked, his eyes flew open to see the mutant and he shuddered, his body breaking into a cold sweat.

Otto had no experience with this act unless it had been done with Rosie in intimate security and he half suspected the horrid vision had been pitched at him by the mutant – just to make him watch as it happened. Yet she was no longer paying attention to his thoughts, only to what she held in her mouth, the throat practically constricting to swallow it down farther like a snake. As disturbing as that image was, the pleasure of it was a shock.

It gathered like pressure and just when he realized it would soon break, she backed off of it and let it go.

Dumbfounded and at a loss, he merely watched her as she rose. Smiling slightly, she moved up as if she intended to sit on his lap. He grunted when her hand grasped his cock and set it where she wanted it, unobstructed by trifles such as undergarments under the short skirt. Staring into his eyes, she pushed it in as she settled down on his thighs with her knees at his hips in the chair.

Hands sliding up under the sweater to caress his chest and heaving stomach, she began to move. Leaning into him, she rested her head on his shoulder, chuckling lightly when he gasped.

“See? I’m nicer than you were, hardly any teasing stops – and no breaking your face, either.”

Otto didn’t answer. He kept his hands locked on the armrests, his blunt nails putting marks in the leather. What she was doing hurt his back terribly but the rush of a fast and surprising orgasm stole his awareness of any other sensation.

He bit his tongue to hold in a cry and tasted blood in his mouth. Thoughts whirling, his planned machinations forgotten, he simply sat and felt it all wash through his body. When it passed, the pain set in, pulling with a frightening ache on his spine and the muscles of his back and ribs.

“Miss Dryden … up, get up.”

“You know, after all that, you could call me Rooke.” She brought her face up to his to kiss him but he turned his head away. “What, I can take a ride, but I can’t kiss you?”

“The actuators, the...” His voice trailed off, crushed by the pain as it made it hard for him to breathe.

“Oh, crap, your back!” She clambered down off of him. “I forgot.” Watching him struggle to stand, she asked, “You’ve ignored the pain pills they found for you, haven’t you?”

Fumbling to set his pants to rights, he grit his teeth when the actuators moved. “I weary of being under the influence of … anything – or anyone.”

Leaving her, he tried not to allow the scream building in his throat to break free every time the machines moved to help him walk. Going as far as the elevator was out of the question, so he steered them to the small monk’s cell of a bedroom next to the lab.

Collapsing onto the bed on his stomach, he buried his face in his folded arms and directed the machines to settle and be still on the floor around him.

One of them lifted minutes later to observe the mutant when she entered the room and the jostling motion brought tears to his eyes.

“I brought one of the pills from your desk. Doc? It won’t hook you like the morphine, but it will help.”

The image of her weaved slightly as the machine twined. She held one of the pills and a glass of water. With a stab of anger and guilt, he moved the machine to strike the glass from her hand. It flew across the room to smash against the far wall, the pieces of it glittering like wet diamonds on the cold floor. The machine’s mouth opened, hissing at her – but she didn’t respond.

Turning away, she left. When he heard the elevator hum, he fell into a sleep of utter physical and emotional exhaustion.

~ ~ ~

Otto woke again without any sense of time or place, until the machines spoke in his mind.

Midnight has / passed. It was / working but we must / not falter again.

“Where is she?”

Above, the / room of water. How / shall we / proceed?

“‘Falter’...” He shook his head, tasting bile in the back of his throat. “It is a far simpler thing to plan such a course of action than to carry it out. You’re fortunate to be constructs; you have no morals to corrupt, no soul to betray.”

These things / appear to be / more burden than / advantage.

Otto’s smile was thin and cold. “I agree. Yet there was a time when I … would not have. It is a time that is slipping further away the more I try to grasp it.”

We must / go now. Begin, / before we cannot ever / begin.

Groaning, he hissed when they moved, but allowed them to set him on his feet. “If I didn’t have a collection of Faustian monstrosities grappled into my spine...” He let the anger at their persistence leak away. They were right – if he hesitated much longer, his resolve would fail him.

She watched him with an odd wary calm when he paused in the doorway of the Water Room. The curtains were open, letting in the bright moonlight.

Otto closed his eyes and listened to the soothing trickle of water running down the wall and the distant haunting notes of Chopin’s Nocturne in e minor, Opus 72 that crept through the penthouse. When he opened his eyes, she had stripped away the sheet to expose her slender alien flesh, her limbs composed to invite him.

He swallowed but didn’t speak, grateful for her silence as he advanced. The actuators, though fluidly graceful, were still jarringly loud as they guided his steps. Trying not to think, he lowered himself to her body and began to give her pleasure.

Avoiding her mouth, unable to allow her the intimacy of a kiss, he drew his fingers and lips down her body. The machines leant him their strength, their balance, as he suckled the folds of her opening, his fingers stroking the soft white down of her pubic mound. His other hand lifted, the fingers tracing the gray lines of her metal as one actuator’s ocular data gave him the path on the way to one conical breast.

It showed him her lips parting to speak but he closed his eyes and murmured, “Hush. Let me … try...” His words puffed warm air on her wet and flushed skin before his tongue returned to its gentle ministrations.

Her muscles relaxed, and hoping her thoughts were rendered as still and yielding, Otto began a careful search inside his own mind. The machines guided him here, too – in their hunt for the pulsing red star of their slavery.

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

The air in the sub-basement level of the lab was freezing but Rooke didn’t want to move, even trying not to shiver. Otto’s limp cock was lying along the cleft of her backside, his broad chest warm on her back as he lay on his side.

Then the heavy male body sleeping beside her in the bed shuddered and she slipped away from him to sit up and grope for the sheets and blankets they’d torn away hours before in a sickeningly violent coupling.

After the storm of hatred, he had turned gentle again for another round as soon as his body could manage it, but he still refused to share anything more than the impersonal friction of sex.

Covering his muscular bulk with the thick blankets, she huddled under them and tried to worm her way in against his skin once more. He grunted in his sleep and turned onto his stomach, the crunching movement of the tentacles that allowed the switch failing to wake him. Undeterred, Rooke cuddled up to his side beneath the thick roots of the machines, trying not to yelp when their cold metal brushed her shoulder.

Eyes open in the dark, she sighed. She knew it might be the best she’d ever get but it wasn’t what she wanted. As the memory of his heated and passionate lust in dreams swept her tangling thoughts away, she felt tears rise.

It’s worse, isn’t it? His indifference makes me feel like a damn blow-up doll. Rosie, you bitch, I think I hate you worse than ever.

His moody unpredictable hungers were exhausting and spiritually draining. Her heart constricted painfully every time the memories intruded of making love as he dreamed of his wife.

What’s the trick? she asked her long-dead mincemeat rival. What the hell did you do to him or for him, to make him so fucking loyal years after you’ve been treating the worms to a good meal? Do I have to go back in time, push you off of those college steps, and listen to him go on about science shit right from the beginning?

Her arm lifted, the hand caressing his back around the machines. When he stirred, she stopped the movement and settled her fingers around one of the metal brutes, gripping it lightly, but enough to keep her skin off of his.

Just sleep, Doc. If you wake, I won’t know which man I’m in bed with and I’m not rested enough to find out yet. Frowning at Logan’s words, she glared into the darkness. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have been spinning around so fast in your head, they’re making me dizzy … and lonely – even while you’re inside me.

Rooke couldn’t pretend ignorance of why it was happening, though. She hadn’t put much time into repairing his synapses yet and no matter what his new efforts to explore his fresh desire brought them, his anger at her continued to drive him to attack her.

As her latest tears slipped down her cheeks, she reached into his sleeping mind with a gentle and careful touch.

I can’t trust you not to harm yourself, but I can fix the rest of the mess I made of your head. Maybe then we could pitch Mr. Hyde out and see what’s possible without him?

She twitched when a trio of red lights snapped on in the dark through the roots of the machines rising out of his back. It was the lights in the joints of one of the tentacle’s mouths, thankfully minus the white spotlight at its center. She listened to his thoughts and the metallic ratcheting sounds of its twining movement in the dark but caught no whiff of waking awareness from his mind.

I don’t mean him any harm, you tin brute, she told it. I’m trying to fix the tossed salad I made of his brains, if that’s okay with you?

Yesyesyesyes.

Great – happy you approve, she answered, frowning.

Will this weaken / your control? We do not / wish to end but he / will try again.

It might, I’m afraid, since it’s all sort of mashed in there in the same spot. I’ll try to untangle the violent lust crap without damaging the rest. We agree on keeping you all around, at least, huh?

No wish / to end, but he / is strong. You are / stronger?

Trying to be. Hey, how about some quiet, though? Can’t really do my best with you jabbering at me and it might wake Sleeping Ugly, here.

If you / need us, / ask and we / will assist.

Rooke smiled at her metal co-conspirator. Tell me how Saint Rosie reeled him in so strong? I mean … what makes him still so loyal to her?

It is fractured / memory only, and / fading. She he wants / is leaving our mind.

Not quite what I asked, but interesting to know. That’s why he said she was dead – not a fact he’s been real ready to face before. Is that why he’s trying to be nicer to me, in bed? Her heart beat hopefully for a moment, until the machines’ cold logic dashed it.

We do not / understand this / merging of flesh. It serves no / functional purpose.

Yeah, well, you’re lucky – I wish I didn’t care about it either. Now shut up for a bit, okay?

Only silence answered her. Sighing, she bent her mind to the task of untangling his. It was difficult and exacting, and before she was entirely finished with the fix, she fell asleep out of pure exhaustion.

~ ~ ~

Rooke woke to his mouth on her slick folds, his tongue lapping and toying until her back arched. She was surprised that he had turned the lights on in the lab, the bright glow outside the open doorway leaving the small bedroom in a dim grayish light. She hadn’t felt him leave the bed to do it – one of the tentacles must have telescoped to reach the controls.

Does he actually want to see me? He’s preferred it as dark as possible every other time; all the easier to pretend I’m a leggy Italian poetry fan.

She watched him hungrily as he moved, the tentacles shifting to allow him to settle between her parting and eager legs. His beautiful dark eyes met hers for only a second, then they shifted away again the moment he entered her. Head bowing down, his unruly and lengthening bangs brushed her throat and ear.

Soon enough, all thoughts melted as his strong and rhythmic thrusts pushed the world away.

“Kiss me, Doc … please?”

Speaking into her shoulder, his breath hot on her skin, he whispered, “No.”

“Why not?”

He didn’t reply, but she knew the answer. It was the same reason he wouldn’t hold her, or allow her to cuddle close if he was awake.

She could scoot into his heated bulk in sleep, but his arms never reached for her, his hands and lips never touched her, as he had always reached for Rosalie. He would take her body to ease the lust she’d taught him to crave again, and to keep her from controlling him, he had fallen into giving her pleasure. Beyond that, he was as impersonal and cold as the metal that had maimed him and driven him mad.

Yet cold or not, she knew his magnificent body would bring her to climax more than once before he would allow his own ejaculate to hit him, just as he had done in years of bed play with his wife.

I wonder if that’s some sort of weird habit, or a social courtesy. Smiling, she thought, Can’t really categorize this guy as ‘wham bam, thank you ma’am’, even when he breaks my face as part of our foreplay.

Rooke, he spoke in her thoughts, startling her. The actuators won’t leave me be about the work – we need to finish the bonding process.

It took her a few hammering heartbeats to realize that her thoughts had entered his mind, not the other way around. Had she been reaching for him out of a habit of her own?

This is hardly a good time for shop talk, Doc. Come on, slide into it – let yourself go.

She twined her consciousness deeper with his, urging him gently to find release. Searching for the sharp tang of self-destruction in his mind out of morbid curiosity, she smiled when she didn’t find it. The anger waited under the veneer of calm, but it didn’t fire incorrectly into a contrived lust.

Man, I’m good. Logan and Chuck would be so proud.

His anger didn’t boil with the need to injure her, either, meaning the lust itself could really be genuine. She tried not to think about that. Every time she hoped he could start to feel something for her, he’d end up driving his fist into her face.

Otto’s hands framed her face on the heels of the thought, and she managed not to flinch. Then her breath caught when his head lifted and his eyes met hers. His heavy frame shifted slightly to change how his cock stroked her, the pain in his back pulling, making him wince, but he ignored it.

“Come for me again,” he whispered. “I want to feel it.”

“Oh, God...” She gasped and moaned when his hands moved. They slid up her arms, his fingers twining in hers. The worst of his weight was held off of her by the angle of the machines, but the strain had to be terrible on his back. “Relax, huh? You’re hurting yourself. Flatten me, I don’t care; I like to feel your weight on me.”

His thoughts swirled, merging with hers deeper as their fingers meshed and held on tight. “Draw me in, like before, like you did in dreams.” His cock filled her again, pushing in as deep as it could go, his need seeming to want more than her body could give.

Rooke’s heart leaped. “Otto...” She pulled him to her with her power and after taking in a deep breath, tapped the streaming heat of passion in his mind. It rose around her, tinged with a strange aftertaste of alien coldness. “What is…?”

Otto’s head lowered, his lips almost touching hers, his arms on hers not allowing her to rise to kiss him. “Come for me...”

Her orgasm gathered more at his words and the closeness of his passion and warm soft mouth than the deep thrusts inside her body alone. She opened her mouth wide in a gasping suck of breath when it burst, radiating heat through her pelvis, back, and stomach, her nipples on fire with it.

There. / Yes. / We / see.

“Thank you, Rooke.”

Fear hit her in the second between the cruel stretch of his grin and the assault on her mind. Five entities struck her consciousness at once, though the battle was inside both of them. His madness and wrath quickly overwhelmed her.

She forgot about her pinned body and struggled to drag up the lax and lulled power she had held over his mind. In the instant that she brought it to bear against him, she felt it snap under the edged weight of his insanity, and screamed when the red star between them exploded.

His physical weight left her, and she tried to roll to avoid the blows, but the tentacles were on her too fast. Two of them punched her at 50 mph, one connecting with her ribs, the other her hip. Her body flew to crash in a hiss of sparks and a noise like whining gears against the wall. The lights on her chest and up her back flared, burning the skin around them as the metal began to move to repair shattered bones.

Rooke screamed again as his massive shape moved to strike once more, and then she hit his mind with her dream spinning power, riding on the waves of her shaken telepathy.

The man’s shout of horror and shock echoed when she made his brain see only what she wanted him to see – the broken and bruised body and limbs of his living and weeping wife.

When she could move, she got to her knees and struggled to stand. “Did you think you had to be asleep for that to work, old man? I can’t change my body like a metamorph, but I can make you see her awake or asleep. Go ahead, hit her! Smash your precious Rosie into a red paste!”

Rooke fought to stand, watching the balled fists of the tentacles open and lower as he stared at her, his human hands opening in a wordless entreaty.

Her pierced lower lip smeared with black fluid, she let a vicious smirk skew her mouth, but all the doctor saw was his wife’s terrified face, her large hazel eyes full of tears. The dulcet voice was easy; she’d heard it so often in his dreams. “Otto, my love, why?”

“No!” he screamed, hands fisting again. “She is gone, she is dead, it’s a lie!”

“Damn you to hell, old man, you tricked me good!” Keeping Rosie’s form, she let her own voice fall from bloody lips. “You hit me again, and you’ll only hit her, got it? Fucking bastard. How did you trick me? How! You’re not a damn telepath!”

The doctor sank to his knees as he stared up at her. Then, tearing his gaze away, he bowed forward over his knees, the tentacles writhing wildly all around him. The moan that was torn from his lips made Rooke’s heart ache.

Dropping the image of his wife, she retreated to the doorway and tried to communicate to the flailing metal monsters.

You’re injuring him, stop it! Be still!

Nononono, they hissed into her thoughts. You cannot / control us / now. We will / defend!

I’m not the one threatening him, you idiots, you are. Fine, go ahead, tear his damn spine out!

Another moan followed by a hiss of pain was ripped from him before they finally understood and began to calm their frantic twisting. Two of them smashed into the concrete floor to support the weight of the others as they lifted, still as sculpture but ready to strike. Otto’s arms had lifted to cover his head, his entire body shaking in agony.

“How did you do it, Doc?” Her voice was softer, trying to reach him.

Groping in the shambles of his mind, she felt her heart sink. He had obliterated the red star, and now she couldn’t do a thing to stop him if he tried to stab himself. The machines sensed her and severed her probe, pitching her out as easily as they had in the beginning.

“You trusted them.” His voice floated up to her in a rasped whisper, muffled by his posture and muscled arms. “You trusted them … because they do not want to die. You told them … that repairing the synapses would weaken...”

She looked up and glared at the uplifted machines. “It’ll serve you right if he makes you punch him in the jugular, you fucking assholes. Did he make you trust him? Did he promise he wouldn’t do it?”

“I won’t.”

“Bullshit.”

“I wanted you … out of my mind. They are right – the work waits.”

“All you’ve wanted, maybe for years, was to cash out so you could go be with your beloved mincemeat.” The sound of anger he made at her words was barely human, but she ignored it. “Now you think that’s all changed just because you smashed my hold on your addled brains? Give me a break, old man.”

“My wife … is dead. Rosalie is dead. Her memory left me … left me. I can’t remember her anymore – her face, her voice. Until you...”

“I’m not doing that again just so you can have her. I warn you … I’d make a very bad enemy. If you strike me again, you’ll see her – I’ll show you how you’re beating her into meat. The work waits? Fine – we’ll finish when you can. Until then, I’m going to get away from you before I’m tempted to try for that lobotomy after all. Good night, old man … and if you make them slice your throat, I’ll pretend to be upset about it.”

When she reached the Water Room and collapsed on the disheveled blankets that were half torn away from the divan, Rooke curled into a fetal ball and sobbed. She wanted to reach out to see if he was all right, but she was terrified of what she’d find if she did.

“Otto, please don’t,” she whispered. She tried to calm down, tried to breathe, but the tears returned to choke her.

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

Otto worked in the lab without stopping to sleep or eat for two days. He ignored the servant, the lawyer, and the doctors. The mutant did not come down. The others said she was in the penthouse above, but he didn’t ask for any of the information they tried to impart to him. Eventually, they would give up and go away – hopefully before he felt compelled to harm them to achieve that end.

When the last metal spike was forged, cooled, and laid out with the others, he allowed the servant to bring food. Afterward, he fell into the ruin of the bed and slept.

His dreams were all nightmares, but none of them held his wife; alive, dying, or dead – she was gone. He woke screaming – hours or days later, he didn’t know or care. Rising from a prone sprawl, he saw that his body still craved.

The crushing weight of it felt eerily hollow, the anger shorting out in the gathering fear that filled him.

Rosalie is gone, but I am here. Where is she? Images flashed through his fracturing thoughts, memories of a jungle of iron and concrete, embraced by twin rivers. A green place, a gray stone – lies carved on its silent face.

Otto rose, ignoring the hunger that tugged at his stomach, the pain that pulled at his back. The scent of his unwashed body didn’t hinder – the flesh meant nothing.

The stone, the lies – the stone... Remake the stone.

He barely heard the vibrating crunch that punctuated each step he took to reach the computer. One grasping metal muzzle turned the chair so he could straddle it in loose, rumpled clothing. Fingers flying over the keys, he set many things in motion.

Time blurred. Somehow, he ate. Now and then, he slept. People came and went, following his orders, blueprints in their human hands. He kept out of sight when they were present near the lab, but when they left, he emerged to inspect the work.

The structure was almost completed. Shining titanium slabs were fitted and welded, the roof nearly sealed. Its wide centered doorway was empty; the vault door was being constructed offsite.

Otto did not enter the vault. It was empty now. Outside of the room-sized structure, a fortification of wooden crates lined the wall of the sub-basement. They had been left sealed on his orders, and no one but him knew what was hidden inside them.

Weary, he returned to the bed and allowed the machines to lay his body down. When one of them reached for the control panel in the wall by the door, probably to summon the servant, he didn’t try to stop it.

~ ~ ~

Waking again in the night, he rose. The machines told him it was near dawn, another fact he hadn’t asked for. Turning the chair in front of the computer, he straddled it, but his fingers didn’t touch the keys. Picking up a heavy, worn book, he opened it at the place where a bit of crimson lace marked it. The pages were illuminated by a single bright spotlight over his head in the instant that he thought about wanting light.

As the printed words formed images in his mind’s eye, swirling like the birds of a language unknown to him – mindless symbols – he none-the-less knew how to speak them, and perhaps how to evoke the memories they had once given back to him.

Soon, she came, as she had before – her steps silent, hesitant. He took food when he was hungry, most of the time. He took rest when his eyes began to blur from the work – and he took her, when the need was there.

He never knew, when it happened, if he would be kind or cruel. It didn’t matter. She always knew when it was time, and she acquiesced, lying down for him to cover her, taking what he gave her, and how he gave it.

Otto didn’t speak often, to anyone. Sometimes she spoke to him, but he never answered her. Now and then, she said his name, but it was mere sounds in the void. The gleaming metal spikes remained hidden, and the work went on. If he kept still, pushing back the void in his mind that lapped at the edges of his thoughts, perhaps the work would go on … and on.