Academician Roste lit a candle, its frail light spreading out through the dark room. He removed the finger bone necklace from his neck and carefully rubbed each one. Clearly this odd choice in jewelry and the dozen or so bones that made it were special to him.
Raped by bandits… wife slain… brother, eaten alive by mutants… a son starved to death and a daughter killed by illness. His teacher taken by old age.
From ignorant youth to haggard old man, Roste had lived a harsh life that no one could know. Everyone who was important to him had died, and each time he took a single finger bone to remember them. Eventually he gathered enough to make his necklace, which he wore every day. Those he'd loved and lost were always with him, their tales a part of his own.
Why were humans made to be so frail? So weak?
The slightest injury or illness could take them. Disaster both natural and man-made could snuff their lives out in a blink.
As he ruminated on these bitter thoughts Roste stroked the bones one by one. He did not know whether it was his hazy vision or a trick of the candlelight, but he could almost see the smiling faces of those he'd lost behind the veil between life and death. It'd been years but every detail stood out vividly in his mind's eye as though they were right in front of him.
Happiness, sadness, sweetness, despair, pain, confusion, hesitation… these complicated and intense emotions lived within the mementos. They traveled with Roste through every day of his struggles.
I will succeed! I will create the mightiest creature in the world, one that does not grow old, or sick, or die. My creation will be invincible!
It doesn't matter if no one understands. I don't need anyone to understand, because the road to greatness is a lonely one. One day they'll know. My work is for the good of humanity, my research will reverse our sorry destiny and save this broken world! I will wipe away history and create a new future!
Roste did not fear death for there was nothing left in this world he cared about. He would sacrifice anything and anyone in pursuit of his dream. Answering to no one, he alone would transform the future of the planet and create something new!
He had already learned all the secrets of the wastelands, it was time to turn his attention on the elysian lands. Once these two disparate realities were combined a new golden age would arise.
"Do you see? My work is almost complete! I ask that you be with me."
He doubled over, coughing into a clenched fist. The deep crevices carved through his face grew deeper as he winced against the strain. When he could breathe again he slipped the bones back around his neck. Footsteps were approaching from behind, and from them he could tell the disposition of who they belonged to. This gait was rapid and unrestrained, meaning it was someone familiar with him. Someone with good news.
Chimp appeared with a smile on his face. "That kid's tolerance is much better than we figured. He's already gone through one round of drugs and the process is advancing quickly. He's strong, we can likely begin the next phase."
Roste had been prepared for this for quite some time. He produced a box and handed it to Chimp. "Go."
The director reverently took the box and held it tight in his hands. Suddenly something came to mind. "Academician, what are we going to do with Hellflower and Hyena?"
Roste knew the desires that lived in Chimp's black heart. "We wipe their minds. I leave you to deal with that."
A twisted grin split Chimp's face. One of the labs was already prepared for just that purpose. Once the drugs broke their will the two of them would be as compliant as all the rest of their mutated soldiers. Hyena mattered little to him, but he'd coveted Hellflower's supple flesh for a long time. Before long she would serve him in whatever way he wanted. Just thinking about it made him salivate.
"But our work is first and foremost. Do not ruin everything we've strived towards."
"Don't worry, Academician. I will personally supervise Cloudhawk's process. I swear there will not be any problems."
Academician Roste's frail body shuffled away.
Chimp bowed to his boss' retreating form. His respect and loyalty was absolute. He was different from Hyena and Hellflower who joined the cause later, he was one of the first to follow Roste. Although he was a lascivious and timid man, he believed in the Academician with every fiber of his being.
It was more than just that Roste was his teacher, after so many years he knew that the old man's heart was true. He wasn't evil or ambitious for ambition's sake. Chimp fully believed in their mission to transform the wastelands and humanity's destiny.
There were many in this base, even around the Academician himself, who had no choice but to serve the scholar's will. However Chimp was certain in his belief that one day Roste would be hailed as a savior. His name would be forever remembered in the beautiful future they envisaged.
And that bitch Hellflower… she actually dared to try and steal the great man's research? Laughable!
Academician Roste's accomplishments were the result of decades of careful study. He was the only one in all the world capable of completing this research. Trying to pilfer his important work for selfish gain was an unforgivable sin!
Hmph, she'll have to wait. Right now the Academician's work is more important than anything else.
When their work with Cloudhawk was finished he would make that woman understand what desperation was. He would teach her the meaning of pain. Let Roste have his fun and then when her will has been broken the traitors would be punished. At last he could vent his hatred.
Chimp brought several scientists with him to Cloudhawk's cage. When they arrived they found him crouched inside with his hands tightly held together. He was saying something, too quietly to hear. Perhaps he was speaking with his god, though it was not the typical posture or style.
He'd been kept in a confused state of mind for several days.
"He hasn't lost his mind has he…"
Cloudhawk was desperately trying to awaken the stone, but all through the night no matter how hard he tried or what he did there was no reaction from it. He was so filled with rage and resentment that when he heard Chimp coming he would have torn him apart with his teeth if he weren't shackled down.
"He still has his faculties? Good, that's good." Chimp gestured with his hands and the guards opened Cloudhawk's cage. They forced him to the ground long enough for the scientist to inject him with a sedative and once again Cloudhawk was rendered helpless. "Take him," Chimp ordered.
Was it all beginning again? Was today another day of torment?
The drugs made him feel like his muscles were replaced with mud. His mind was clear but his body wouldn't cooperate. The first thing he noticed was that they did not bring him to the lab they used normally. This room was different, narrow, and filled with crude wasteland equipment.
Transparent vats filled with colorful liquids lined the walls. An empty tank rested in the middle.
"Today we begin the first phase of transformation."
Chimp did not waste time with talking. At his command two of the guards produced daggers and cut away Cloudhawk's clothes. They forced a breathing mask over his face, foisted him into the tank then sealed the lid.
All the while Cloudhawk was acutely aware of everything that was happening. He was forced to watch with no way to protect himself or fight back.
Chimp flipped a switch and the vats surrounding them began to drain their fluid into the sealed capsule. In about ten minutes Cloudhawk was entirely submerged.
"Injecting the Academician's supercells. Begin the culture stage."
Chimp personally opened a nearby refrigerator and retrieved a syringe from inside. Without wasting any time he pressed the needle into a tube's injection orifice and slowly pushed out its contents. Meanwhile Cloudhawk floated in the brew, breathing with the help of the mask. It felt like he was being aggressively stabbed by a hundred thousand tiny needles. Every inch of skin, every cell felt like it was being cut up.
"Beginning Phase One cultivation." Chimp ordered the eight guards to remain and look after him, adding, "Arrange for a hundred of our best men to be posted all throughout the area. Absolutely nothing can go wrong, or I'll make sure every single one of you pays for it. Do you understand?"
Cloudhawk's fist was still tightly clenched. Within his palm the rock remained.
He wasn't going to let that stone go easily, not until his final breath. Despite constant failure he still tried everything he could to awaken it to no avail. There was no reaction at all.
Then he began to feel like things were growing dim, like something was separating him from the world outside. The pain, the itching, the hot and cold all remained while all of his senses were cut off. Suddenly he was in an infinitely dark hell of torment. No light, no hope, no future. Just endless anguish.
He could feel something invading his body, a hundred million tiny pinpricks that stabbed at every piece of skin, muscle and bone. Was this the beginning of the transformation?
Cloudhawk's anger and fear were gone. His mind went blank like he finally lost all power of thought. Perhaps he'd given up, there was no way to fight back. Was this his fate? To die here, after so much, halfway on his road to the elysian lands? It was so ridiculous he would laugh if he had the strength to!
In the end even Cloudhawk had his limits. After days of agony his will was broken, brought to brink by a week of torture and finally pushed over the edge in the darkness of this tank. He couldn't see any way out.
Little by little his body relaxed.
Little by little he abandoned this meaningless struggle.
Only, as that numb stillness took over his mind Cloudhawk could feel something coming from the stone. A pulse, followed by a pale light that radiated from within his tightly clenched fist. A strange and unexplainable power filled the space around him.
The stone… the stone was awakening!
All of a sudden he was filled with a joy that threatened to drive him mad. He'd managed to use the stone only rarely since obtaining it and never when he called. This was the exception, the one time it awakened at his request.
The difference between this odd stone and normal relics lay in the fact that using it was far more rigorous. Only when he entered a perfect state of stillness, where everything else melted away, was his will able to resonate with it.
This was a very large and important discovery! It was the first time his desperate groping revealed any truth about the stone.
The light from the stone grew more intense and the fluid around him began to vibrate. It roiled like it was boiling, followed by an intense rattling noise. All at once the glass tank that held him shattered sending shards of glass and caustic fluid in every direction.
"What the hell is going on?!"
Two bewildered scientists rushed in and gaped at the mess that greeted them. They hurriedly rummaged through the debris only to be more shocked by what they found.
Nothing! Cloudhawk was gone!