This story begins two days after Twixt
Conduit stared through the windshield, his mind whirling as he drove
through the night. He was
following the new containment van as it carried its reduced load to Nevada. They were making good time and should arrive at the Powerdyne facility by dawn.
He mostly dreaded the arrival.
The other guards had been very distant since the attack on the trial convoy in upstate New York. Not that Conduit blamed them for being distant. They had after all witnessed him survive a full-frontal assault from a strange-looking, high-flying meta. Since he was in the thick of things, he wasn't certain what exactly the guards saw during the whole encounter, but he recalled getting zapped by a point-blank lightning bolt and taking the brunt of a high-speed aerial body-check. And surely they saw the side effects of these deadly attacks, surely they saw his body glowing like a 100-watt bulb. A full report would soon be in the hands of Maximillian Powers, a man that Conduit's sources warned him was the dirtiest man in "the business."
Fear and loathing was seriously brewing.
Good thing I'm trying to go legit, Conduit thought. My cover's blown, but that only makes my career change more of an incentive.
He also wondered about that gold coin. It seemed obvious that the teleporter
had sent it to him as a message. He studied it for a long time, but then
decided to leave it in the bathroom of the next fuel stop. If it was a
trace of some sort, hopefully it would get in the pocket of a trucker
on his way to Paraguay.
As the night wore on, and the featureless road grew even more unending,
a gloom descended over Conduit. Just a few weeks ago he had almost looked
forward to the vanishing act he seemed destined to pull. Identified or
caught during a job, he was prepared to slip away to
somewhere warm and distant with some hidden funds to live out his life anonymously. And when he had first realized just what Jack Morgan was all about, he was on the verge of doing just that. Being unfettered would help a lot if he had to do freelance heroics that looked like sabotage, terrorism, and theft.
The Powerdyne job seemed a perfect chance to pull this stunt off. Just
simply not show up. A
quick search of his apartment would find it empty and untouched, and none of his regular friends would see him for years, if ever. With the Night Killer loose, they might assume that his past had finally caught up with him, claiming him as another gutted and stuffed "missing person" buried with Hoffa.
But then he got cold feet. At first he thought it was because he didn't want to hurt the agency's reputation. Then he thought it was because he didn't want to hurt Dana's reputation. But he finally admitted that he couldn't really imagine never seeing Dana again.
His mind drifted down that path for a while, and a smile formed on his lips. His favorite way to see Dana after a long absence was to pick her up at the airport. She always wore the same ensemble -- a man's white dress shirt, old jeans, dancing slippers. She never explained her rationale for maintaining this seemingly traditional attire and he never asked her why, but he knew it was her "good luck" flying outfit. She always seemed so glad to see him...
He snapped his attention back to the road. Letting his mind wander was no way to go about business, especially since they'd already been attacked once. He'd have time to think that through later. In the meantime he had a job to finish.
Four hours later, his team pulled into Powerdyne Research Facility #7. The sun had come up in that quick way it only seemed to do in the desert -- dark one minute, daylight the next. In the brief cool of the morning the various buildings seemed like rose-colored blocks left out by a child the day before.
Checking in, signing the various forms, and being debriefed by Powerdyne security took forever even though security knew he was a contractor and not to be hassled. He was finally told where a shower and cot were when he refused brunch. Bone weary, Conduit slogged down the hallways toward the elevators.
Most of the facility was underground, although it seemed more open and airy than the others he'd seen like it. He was already one floor down and the dorm areas were on sub-4. But he couldn't find the damn elevators.
Up ahead he saw Mike, one of his co-drivers from the convoy, standing at a small elevator. Conduit sighed in relief. He walked up and stood near Mike, smiling. Mike just stared at him indifferently for a moment, nodded tersely, and turned to face the elevator.
Damn, thought Conduit, and he seemed so nice before.
The elevator doors opened and Conduit followed Mike in, though it was obvious from his body language that Mike didn't want his company. He almost blocked the doors so Conduit couldn't enter. Sourly, Conduit ignored Mike and stood in the corner.
As the elevator lowered, Conduit suddenly felt a slight tugging but made nothing of it. The panel on this elevator showed twelve sub floors, not the five he'd seen in the main bank. Okay, he was in a different eleva--
A jolt suddenly hit Conduit, and his fatigue washed away as adrenaline coursed through him. What the Hell happened? Conduit's looked around frantically, seeing that the security card reader beside the elevator door was now warping and twisting like it was alive. He drew in a breath to speak when Mike turned to look at him, the driver's eyes opaque crimson and with some sort of energy leaking from them. Conduit barely had time to whisper "Shit" before a bolt of blood-red light slammed him against the wall. He spilled facedown on the floor, twitching with the impact and his own power.
"Christ!" Conduit muttered aloud.
He'd never felt power like that before. He felt like he should be on fire or glowing like a bonfire. He felt no pain, so he had absorbed it all, but he wasn't sure how. Sometimes he could absorb massive amounts of force, sometimes just his arc-wire trick hurt. But this? This was way beyond anything he'd ever done before.
And he wasn't sure he could do it again, and so he laid still as he could make himself, careful not to look up. After a long interval, the elevator opened. Conduit saw Mike stride out into a harshly lit hallway. But as Mike walked onwards, Conduit beheld another strange phenomenon. Mike seemed to spontaneously combust! His hair and flesh bursted into flames, melting his humanity away. And where Mike just seconds ago stood was now a skeletal man-thing hell-bent on destruction. The fiery monster continued down its course.
Conduit stood to follow "Mike" and noted that the creature was leaving
the concrete blackened and cracked where he walked. He followed as quietly
as he could, although the thing seemed too focused to even care.
At the end of the hall the creature paused before a steel security door, but the door then sagged in its frame from what looked like intense heat. As it fell open, high-pitched klaxons began to sound and red strobes kicked in as the fire sensors were tripped. Beyond the door two very surprised guards unslung energy weapons and fired on the monster stalking toward them. Seemingly unaffected, the hellish creature gestured and killed the men with a wave of plasmic fire.
Conduit almost left right there. He'd read the specs on Powerdyne's shockrifles; if this thing was
unaffected by them
The sight of the guard's charred corpses decided him. It was obvious there was nothing they could do to harm this thing and he'd cut them down for the hell of it.
Well fuck him, Conduit thought. Let's see if I can fight fire with fire.
Conduit dashed forward, confident that the alarms and lights would give him the cover he needed to get close. The monster had paused in front of a massive vault door, probably to destroy it as well. Conduit stopped barely ten feet behind it and yelled, "Try this, sucker!"
Conduit tried to channel as much power as he could, feeling the energy drain from him in a gout of plasmic fire. Heat rushed the creature like a battering ram, some spilling past him and partially melting the steel handle of the vault door, and the impact bounced the thing's head off the main plate. Steam started to rise from Conduit's hands.
The monster spun, roaring with rage, and attacked. Conduit almost evaded the creature's swing, but was caught with a staggering blow to the side of his head. He frantically tried to keep his feet under him as the creature moved up and grabbed him.
"You dare!" the fiery death's head hollared, its voice like crumbling granite. "You dare attack me! Your last agonizing moments will be spent learning your folly, worm!"
The thing wrapped its arms around Conduit and began squeezing him as his hold began to burn and scorch and sting. Conduit struggled for long seconds, fighting his own feelings as well as the pain. In a dreamlike haze, he could feel the agony of the super-heated fire that was getting past his powers and burning him. He also felt the pressure of the monster trying to crush him. But at the same time, the unfathomable feeling of absorbing massive amounts of radiation and kinetic force was like a drug. Conduit could smell his own cooking flesh in his nostrils, yet he felt his blood turning to wildfire and an intense power growing within him. He wasn't sure whether to scream in terror or laugh like a madman.
In the end, Conduit roared as the hellish fiend pressed him up overhead.
He held on tight, his hands digging into the monster's shoulders, and he
continued to consume the fiery energy that leaked from his assailant. As
the energy continued to rush over him and through him, the escalating power
hit its boiling point and the hellfire spilled from Conduit's body in glowing
streams of crimson. He could no longer feel himself getting stronger or
"storing" more energy. He was like a fuel tank that had been maxed out
-- he reached his limit.
And Conduit felt like a god.
Conduit stopped roaring, sucked in a deep breath, and looked down at the thing holding him. Its twisted, demonic eyes looked at him with something like anticipation as it waited for him to die. Over its hideous low chuckling, Conduit could actually hear his own skin sizzling from the incredible heat. As good as he felt now, he realized it was possible for him to die from his injuries once his power faded.
Filled with rage, Conduit raised his hands above him and clubbed his tormentor on the shoulders. The impact almost knocked it to the ground and easily freed Conduit even as it burned his hands. He landed lightly on his feet, eyes locked on his stunned foe. Reaching deep, deeper than he ever had, he clenched his hands together and strode forward, striking it in the chest with all of his stolen power as another roar tore his throat. The impact sounded like a cannon being fired, and the thing slammed into the vault with enough force that it burned an inch-deep imprint of itself into its door before it fell limp to the ground.
Conduit staggered toward skeletal monster, not daring to hope his fiery opponent was down. The thing was still breathing easily but looked like it was out. He considered hitting it again, but the pain of his existing burns made him decide not to.
He then looked down at himself. His clothes were completely burned away and blood streamed from the horrible burns around his ribs and across his chest. As his powers started to fade, he could hear himself start to wheeze and gasp from the pain and exertion. He sat down heavily on the floor and he realized that the sprinklers had come on sometime during the fight.
Conduit was cold, very cold, and he couldn't get warm. He curled up, trying his best to retain heat, when he saw the monster shake its skull-like head and begin to rise. He knew he should react, but it was too cold for him to think. When the monster staggered to its feet and passed through a wall, leaving it unscorched and complete intact, he realized that he must be dreaming or hallucinating. But at least it wasn't quite so cold anymore. Someone must have realized he was freezing and turned on the heat. Yes, that's what it was.
Maybe it was the angel, all in white with a shroud over her head, the
one who told him not to worry, everything would be okay...
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