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The Children of the Coil (IC)

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7 May 2011, 11:30 am

Time flies when you're having fun, or at least that's how the saying goes. For Fulcrum the fun included both honest good times and a lot of work. Robots to punch, villains to capture, bystanders to rescue, laundry to wash. The typical superhero day. Which meant that in the greater scheme of things, a little topic she'd been meaning to pursue for many months had fallen through the cracks.

Unfortunately, her query remained elusive. The man in question just didn't get out much, and when he did, he was all business. Hard to have a conversation with someone that didn't converse casually very often. That part though could wait. Tracking him became the major problem, until a seemingly random connection surfaced between Wander and him.

In any event a few days later the invite arrived. Which consisted of Fulcrum meeting up with a patrolling Harrier and asking him if he'd like to chat sometime. She'd even pick up lunch! Who could resist free food? Toss in the glorious spring setting of the Wharton State Forest foothills in full bloom for good measure. The blossoms aside, the picnic grounds provided a secluded yet comfortable setting for perhaps sensitive questions. Topics: Harrier, life in Freedom City, the Terminus, etc.

Fulcrum herself arrived a bit early and set up her lunch collection. She'd been reluctant to allow Viktor's robot gorilla butlers to provide lunch, but in the end the large selection of cold cut sandwiches, lemon-peanut rice and iced tea did win her over. Hopefully he would enjoy the selection as well. She contemplated how much she liked those robot apes while lounging and waiting for her guest.

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Murdock crested the nearest hill some moments later, a faint sheen of sweat visible on his completely hairless head. From a distance, the lines that ran over every square inch of his body were all but invisible beneath the long-sleeved white tees and blue jeans that seemed to be his only casual wear. He caught her eye and gave a short wave, then continued a slow, ponderous walk down the hill and towards her. He gave no sign of exertion from the strain, and come to think of it she'd heard neither a car or the unholy shriek of his armor's engines.

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Mona smiled and waved back to the good Mr. Murdock. She too dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt, if her tee was a bit more tie-dyed colorful. For the moment, scrutinizing his approach occupied her if for no other reason than he was the only other soul around this fine day. Something else about caught her eye, but she couldn't put her finger on it.

Wasn't the lines. No, she'd seen them up close in the Underground. What could it be? As he neared, the answer, like the lines, became clear. Standing up, she offered a handshake to him. "Enjoy the hike? Wharton is gorgeous this time of year. Also, thanks for coming, Mr. Murdock."

Given their location, she felt fairly comfortable referring to him by name. Which name he preferred would likely become clear shortly.

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"It was pleasant," replied Harrier. "The landscape is very unspoiled once you leave the confines of the city." He'd actually walked all the way there, not wanting to risk detection in the sky and lacking the money for a bus ride. He shook her hand firmly, looking up to meet her eyes as he'd been taught: up close you could see that some of those lines on his face went through the eye as well. "Thank you for the food. I am sorry I have nothing to give you in return." Outside of his armor, his voice lacked that eerie mechanical affect; he sounded perfectly human, if decidedly odd.

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Mona shook his hand firmly as well and said, "One of the most beautiful forests on the east coast, if I do say myself."

Her vision drifted subtly over the lines in his eyes. The look wasn't one of discomfort or even revulsion. If anything she looked rather curious about the whole affair, especially after meeting him in the Underground that first day. Still she didn't want to be rude and didn't trace the patterns any further.

Motioning to the picnic table, the giantess sat down and unpacked the wicker basket. Soon plates of sandwiches and side dishes, quite a variety actually, adorned the table. She shook her head at his apology, "You're welcome. No need to bring anything. You're my guest. Enjoy."

With that she handed him a plate and utensils.

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Murdock ate without further conversation, proving himself quite the trencherman as he put away as much as he could eat. He wasn't a savage, mind, he evidently had learned table manners from somewhere. But he hadn't yet made the leap that food went with talk. Eventually, he offered, "The nourishment is quite palatable. Did you prepare it yourself?" Though there was a family some dozens of yards distant on the far side of the large picnic ground, they were largely alone with each other, the good, and the fresh spring air.

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Fulcrum let him eat as much as he wanted. After all the butlers did pack enough for at least four people. She slowly finished off one sandwich, which looked like finger food compared to her size. Since Murdock wasn't chatting, conversation didn't seem like a major issue at the moment. Mona enjoyed the spring air and watched the new leaves rustle in the breeze.

Other thoughts drifted into her mind by the time Harrier spoke. Clearing her head with a shake, she turned to him and smile sheepishly, "No, I didn't actually. My boyfriend's, I mean Dr. Archeville's, robot butlers insisted on preparing it. Glad you liked it." Eying the leftovers, she added, "I was a bit leery about them preparing food, but they did a good job as far as I'm concerned. Would you care for more?"

The other side dishes and vegetables were pushed his way, and she produced some apples from the basket. "Healthy dessert."

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"I am familiar with Dr. Archeville. I was not aware he possessed robot servitors. I am sure he is a good boyfriend." It was hard to tell how Harrier felt about that; it was hard to tell how he felt about most things. "Thank you." He ate the apples straight through, core and all, his teeth crunching through the hard stuff in the middle. When he'd finished eating, he fell silent, and there was no sound but the birds and insects, and the distant chatter of the family across the way. Despite himself, Harrier's eyes strayed over there for a moment. Eventually, he said, "I am grateful for the food, and will give you hospitality in return." And then a moment later: "We are not friendly with each other, Fulcrum. And there are those more deserving of so bountiful a meal than I. You had a reason to call me."

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Fulcrum smiled like a lovestruck fool and sighed, "He's a good man."

For the moment, she felt more than content letting Harrier enjoy his apples and sunshine. Truth be told the day turned out about perfect. Almost too perfect to be conversing about the topics she had in mind. Would ruin the vibe of the day, and although she didn't know his background, she could guess this experience was something rare if not new. Mentally, she wondered if she should just chat about general topics and avoid spoiling the day for him.

A couple of apples, core and all, were crunched along with him. While he focused on the family in the distance, Fulcrum focused on the songs of the birds. Many of them sounded familiar from her backyard growing up. Many more couldn't be identified but were too enjoyable to mull over at the moment. Finally, Steve Murdock aka Harrier cut to the heart of the matter.

"Yes, yes, I did," she replied after a moment. "Mr. Murdock...actually, how would you prefer to be addressed? Feel free to call me Mona. I don't have a secret identity, as should be pretty obvious." Silent reigned a moment before she spoke again. "Yes and no really. I've been meaning to get to know you better since we briefly met at the Brownstone. I'm curious about certain things, too, but if you don't want to talk about them, I understand."

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"You may call me whatever you prefer," said Murdock. "I find that I prefer to use my last name when dealing with others. My super-identities should not be spoken in public, Mona." He knew that much about superheroes, at least. Turning that thousand-yard gaze on her, he said evenly, "Yes, my transformation and liberation have made me an object of fascination for many, and revulsion for others. Earth-Prime has many who are intrigued by what a free Omegadrone represents, just as there are many who would gladly destroy me for what I am. Only by maintaining my double-secrecy have I been able to survive."

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Fulcrum nodded, "That's understandable, Mr. Murdock."

"Can you blame them though? Not every day that someone like you shows up." She leaned against the table, relaxing, and intently watching his facial expressions. "Still I'm glad you're on our side now."

Suddenly, she was at a loss for words. Again the thought popped up that maybe she should just avoid unpleasant topics. For the moment, that little voice was indeed heeded. She blurted out the first neutral question in her mind, "How do you feel?"

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"That I am allowed to live is a source of fascination for me," said Harrier, that flat look softened a little by honest wonder. "I bear the mark of the greatest enemy of humanity. Of all the humanities. And I am unique. Though records exist of other Omegadrones freed from the grip of the Coil, there are none who retain such indelible connections to what we once were." He ran his fingers lightly over the lines that ran over even his fingertips. "I am shown a mercy that I doubt very much I would ever have shown myself, and it fills me with wonder." At Fulcrum's words, he looked out over the arcadian picnic around them and replied with genuine honesty. "I look at this place and I imagine it as a charnel pit. I know how best to terrify the proles over there. I can imagine which would be the most effective to destroy to cow the others into submission." He struggled for words for a moment, then added, "It is a beautiful day. The food is good, and the company is pleasant. I feel happy."

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"Now you have the option not to do such things. You are free to choose your own path in life, though it may be difficult. You're not really alone," she answered back, swinging her legs around to sit and watch the family in the distance. For a moment more, she watched him and enjoyed the sun on her skin.

"That's good," she said finally, nodding and looking into the distance, "Wonder and happiness. Very good."

Oblivious to the dour conversation, the squirrels continued bounding about the leaves and the birds sang.

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"Yes. Yes, it is." Harrier turned again and gave her that look. "I have been in therapy before, Mona. Beneath the Silver Tree on the world of the Furions, ancient sages of cosmic power probed my mind to tell me I was innocent of the blood of uncountable billions on my hands. That the megagenocides I have seen were witnessed by another being wearing my body and mind, not by me. In Freedom City, Lady Liberty has spoken with me about why I have not taken my own life to escape decades of memories and a world that, if it knew my true face, would surely..." He looked away for a moment, then back at Mona.

"I live with it, with all of it, because I am the only one who can. No one else remembers those gone-away worlds. No one else remembers how they lived, and how they died...no one else recalls the Black Ghetto of Nihilor, or the life of proles gone so many years now. I live with this, with all that I am, on this bright sunny day because if I die, then it is all for nothing. All those worlds are dead even in memory. And my life, nothing but a tragedy with no meaning. I choose to have meaning. I choose to be a hero, so that others can have such. And I choose...today. This place, this life."

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Mona raised an eyebrow and turned to him with a confused look on her face. She didn't interrupt his speech but mentally went over exactly from where it came. The only explanation she could manage consisted of him misinterpreting her agreement that a beautiful, happy day as some sort of psychological analysis. In any event, she rolled with it and nodded as he finished up.

Her first impulse was to dispel the miscommunication, but after a moment of extra thought, she let him be because of the content. Her heart went out to him and his well-deserved angst. If anything qualified for true, existential angst, Harrier certainly was one of them. Her eyes probably gave away that the sympathy, not pity, at his plight.

Whether appropriate or not, she went with her gut and gave him a big ol' hug. Now being a possibly jumpy fellow, the approach came slow enough to recognize as non-aggressive. Still she gave him a hug and sat back down, watching two squirrels fight in the grass. She knew some people did not like uninvited contact and hoped she didn't err. Her ability to read people didn't exactly win any awards, but at the time it felt right.

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Murdock tensed, neither pulling away nor relaxing, but after a moment did return the hug. He was solid to her embrace, and weirdly mechanical: his metal bones giving his body an inhuman consistency. When they were done, he spoke again. "I appreciate the sentiment, Mona. It is a good reminder to me that there are those who are capable of looking past appearances. I suppose you have some experience with that, yourself." Her outsize build certainly did make her an outstanding figure; she was, if anything, more likely to draw attention than he was.

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"You're welcome. In this town, you rarely can take people on first appearances," she said with shrug. "My size bothers some people, but a lot of the kids absolutely love using me as a jungle gym." A little smile followed.

She didn't ask, but obviously he had some way to disguise his appearance. The strange, alien lumpiness didn't take much given his muscular build, and the fact that living in the States, he wasn't likely to have a great deal of physical contact in public. The lines, on the other hand, must be more difficult to conceal. After all the man had the lines through his eyes. Make up, contacts or a holoprojector were her best bets as far as moving incognito. She didn't ask though. He seemed private enough, even if he was showing surprising candor.

"Maybe you should write a book, or at the very least, write or record your memories. Difficult as they are, they'd be a magnificent history," she added after a few moments. "Which, beyond seeing how you were adapting, is the other reason I wanted to meet you."

"I have vested interest in knowing about the Terminus and its inhabitants. Means I'm asking a favor of you. I would like to know as much about the Terminus as possible please." Frankly, shifting to a more business-like manner probably made him more comfortable, but she tried to make the transition and new topic as casual as possible.

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"I am part of the Freedom League's oral history project," replied Harrier to the first. "It is a special project of Lady Liberty's," he clarified. "Those who are the last to remember something, or among the few who were there at some great and secret moment, tell their tale to a recorder, so that it may be stored in memory. The idea of building something that lasts, even if it was only a monument of stories, had much appeal to me." At her question, he gave her an implacable look. "There is much to tell. You would find much of it distressing. Very little of it is...pleasant to hear for those who have not seen it. What would you know?"

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"Hey, that's great! I haven't heard about that. I'll have to look into it. I'm surprised Lady Liberty hasn't said something. I can understand her discretion but mentioning among the superhero community wouldn't be a bad thing. We have a lot of topics that could be added," said Fulcrum, looking as excited by the prospect of an oral history library as learning about the Terminus. "With the right resources, it could really expand. For instance I know many heroes who would be willing to talk about the demon invasion a couple of years ago."

Mona leaned on one elbow and tapped her chin in thought. What should she tell him, if anything? Where to begin with his information? After a moment, she asked, "Pleasant, unpleasant, I want to know...scratch that...need to know a few things. What color is the sky? Is it shadowy red with sparkling universes instead of stars?" Which was true enough, given how often she dreamed of those crimson-black skies.

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"The skies are red," agreed Harrier, "for there is no sun for ancient Nihilor save the black flame of the Coil itself. Distantly in the skies are the hundred worlds, the last relics of a million universes pulled apart into darkness and cast adrift in the cold and the dark. Those worlds pay homage to Omega in blood and treasure, worshipping him as their lord and master for his pleasure. Their strongest and bravest become Omegadrones, their weakest and most cowardly rewarded for their craven cruelty with Omega's favor." His voice changed as he spoke, like a man reciting an epic poem. "Beyond them is the Warp, the eternal red mist that devours the mind of even drones who drift too far from the black flame of Nihilor." He rounded on Fulcrum. "Nihilor itself is a world wrapped in the stretched skins of still-living gods. Beneath the great and terrible palaces of the Annihilists, the proles crawl and fight, the luckiest among them slaves and the unluckiest..." He looked down at his hands, covered in those lines, before he said, calming faintly, "The Terminus is death. Those of us who lived there lived as maggots in the rotting corpses of gigabillions."

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Fulcrum took it all in, at one point closing her eyes. One could easily assume the gesture was a reaction to the sheer horror being recounted, but in truth she did so as much, if not more, to visualize the place. Yes, she could see it in her mind's eye, and his description matched her visions quite well.

"You're very eloquent. You'd be a great writer with that voice." An honest compliment for an unpleasant remembrance.

She deliberated on how exactly to proceed. On the one hand, she didn't want to derail or offend Mr. Murdock, but on the other hand, something about his description seemed a little off. Once she knew what the subtle difference appeared to be, she asked, "Is it really death? I mean, your details and local research suggest that the Terminus isn't really 'death' per say. If anything the death is a derivative of the Terminus. Is the Terminus more of a fundamental component of existence? Something like entropy or transformation?"

When you no longer sleep, and can think as fast as a super computer, you tend to fall into contemplative funks over the Big Questions. Hers inevitability returned to the Terminus. Not Omega, Nihilor or Omegadrones specifically but the Terminus. Whatever human-relatable features aside, the Terminus presented a far more primal and fundamental challenge to, well, everything in existence. It was the great antithesis. It was beyond even death. Beyond gods.

That's when her mind clicked and her face went slack in epiphany. "You said that Nihilor is wrapped in the skins of still-living gods. You...meant that literally didn't you?"

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"In ancient days, the gods of the Alphans lived together in peace," said Harrier, "until the day that dark Omega turned on the rest and began their slaughter. They could not be slain, however, so instead he stitched together their divine flesh and made an unbreakable armor for dark Nihilor." He looked away and said simply, "I have seen their faces from orbit. Some yet weep." Still considering what she'd said about the natural order of the universe, he said, "Early in my career, I assisted Miss Americana and others in the repulsion of the animate dead this October. The Terminus is to decay and entropy what those animate dead are to the natural order of life: the Terminus is not simply the end of all things. It is an end that hungers, that devours, that rises from its place to feed and corrupt on the universal life that lies all around it. And even those that may have left its grasp..." he looked down at his hands, lined as they were with the markings where his armor lay just beneath its skin "are forever altered by its fell touch."

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Mona listened carefully and mentally noted everything. Harrier's phrasing and terminology held particular appeal to her. She leaned on the table, propping up her head with her arm and focusing intently. That one word, "Alphans", provided yet more questions.

"Who were these Alphans? I take it the name is derivative of alpha. Where they among the first beings of the Terminus?" She turned her gaze to the forest, still trying to organize the information already provided. Something still didn't make sense. Something didn't fit.

"I just can't see the Terminus being unnatural in and of itself. It...feels primordial. Like the difference between, say, physics and mathematics. Physics deals with the mechanisms of the universe as it exists, while mathematics is the logical underpinnings of reality codified." She stopped abruptly, gasping mentally, and physically, for the appropriate words to express the concept. The physics-math dichotomy didn't make the best example, but having dated a scientist for a year, it was the most obvious.

Looking back, she added quietly, "Even universal life dies. The big crunch, the big rip, heat death, even universes die. The Terminus is supposed to devour such things. I know that."

She knew she was fishing for something. As much as she wanted to learn about the Terminus, she subconsciously had some things she just needed to know. How to do so and fully appreciate Harrier's candidness was the main sticking point.

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Harrier stared at Fulcrum for a long moment as she spoke of the natural value of the Terminus, incomprehension turning to suspicion on his face. "In the grim ghetto streets of the Black Slum, those proles who have abandoned all hope embrace Omega as their dark god of death and pain, the lord and master of a multiverse that he will one day pull down and feast upon for the greater glory of the end of all things. " He fell silent for a moment, his face implacable, before saying, "Do not expect me to embrace my destroyers, Mona. And yours, should they succeed in their dark plans for all of creation. There are enemies that cannot be bargained with, that cannot be reasoned with, that have nothing for you but your own destruction. It is natural to live. To love. Do not see justice in anything else."

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Fulcrum sighed and shook her head, eyes closed. She had the sudden and random urge to 'examine' Harrier's armor. Which by examine meant bodily ripping the metal suit out of those lines. The dark thought went just as fast as it came, pushed away like many of her darker ponderings.

"That's not what I mean, Mr. Murdock," she replied momentarily, her voice even if her face looked tense. Taking a deep breath, she considered her next words, thought better and said, "You mentioned several terms: Alphans, Doom Coil, Nihilor..."

Mentally, she kicked herself for even brooching the subject. The desperation to find someone, anyone, to share her thoughts with was maddening, and she slipped up. Even Viktor didn't hear about her dreams, most of her Terminus-themed work, her violent impulses or the stirrings of power welling with her. Couples still kept a few secrets. Harrier though knew exactly what she meant. He'd heard the thing talk, grew up in that Hell of Hells, knew more than any other living person about the place.

Unfortunately, Harrier proved to be infuriatingly rigid in his beliefs. Few things in this world aggravated the giantess more than people unable or unwilling to accept that other perspectives existed, or worse, that their cherished beliefs may not be Absolute Truth. Dark Star and heroism, her mother and Allah, Freedom Angel and his Heaven: like talking to impervium walls. She was...disappointed, but possibly jumping to conclusions.

"What is the Doom Coil?" she finally asked, if nothing else to change the subject.

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