Doc Ock: Of Dreams and Dust – Chapter 7 – Roses and Wrath

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.

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