Guardsman Sherit felt the beads of sweat rolling down his face, turning the interior lining of his helmet into a wet, smelly mass. The only sound that registered was the clanking of his armored boots against the polished metal of the corridor. There were no decorations, nothing to indicate that this was anything other than a utilitarian hallway leading to a functional room.
When he reached the oak door which looked so out of place in the high-tech lair of his master, Sherit knocked twice, quickly and firmly. The door creaked open slowly, revealing the contents of the room to Guardsman Sherit a bit at a time.
He had seen this room but once, when he had been given his commission as leader of a sector. At that time, the Guardsman Prime had sworn him in. He was unprepared for what he saw now.
A man, perfect in form and awe-inspiring in his beauty, sitting with all poise upon a crimson throne. All around him, a red rug covered the floor. The wood-paneled walls were covered with works of art. A picture window in the back of the room overlooked the entire city.
"Enter, Guardsman Sherit," said the man, his voice a perfect baritone. "You have news for me?"
Sherit began to speak, but stopped instantly when the man held up one perfect hand in a gesture for silence. A second later, music began playing in the room. The man stood, easily and without apparent effort, and walked over to a wooden cabinet.
"Do you like Bach, Guardsman Sherit?"
"Yes, sir," Sherit replied. His nervousness was increasing. Now he just wanted to get his news over with.
Yet the man motioned with his hand, and Sherit followed the gesture. He was being told to sit down in one of the plush chairs in the room. Sherit walked over, his armor making a horrendous racket in contrast to the other man's smooth and silent motion. Sherit sat down in the chair and began to tremble.
The man returned from his labors at the cabinet with two glasses filled with red wine. He handed one to Sherit and sipped lightly from the other one.
"It's quite good, isn't it?"
Sherit removed his faceplate, hoping that the man wouldn't notice his perspiration, and took a noisy sip of his glass. It was the best wine he had ever tasted, and he had more access to finery than most citizens ever would.
"It is the best I have ever had, sir."
The man sat once again upon his throne and set the wine glass down upon the glass table next to him. He folded his fingers together in a steepled fashion and gazed over at Sherit.
"Now. Your news?"
Sherit's wine glass slipped out of his hand. Before he could move to try and catch it, it floated to the table next to him without a drop spilling from the glass. The man in the throne had not moved.
"Sir, the rebels have gained access to the chip that was being transported from Science Labs in Miami."
Sherit closed his eyes. He waited for what seemed like an eternity, and when he opened his eyes, the man was standing right in front of him. Sherit looked up to see the man's face.
He was smiling. Then he began to laugh, deep and warm laughter. Sherit giggled nervously along with him. The man's hand landed on Sherit's shoulder in a friendly gesture.
"You were afraid that I would destroy the messenger, Guardsman?"
Sherit nodded. It would do him no good to lie, he knew that much.
"Perhaps you had heard the rumors that my body was decaying as was my mind, that I was becoming insane?"
Again, Sherit nodded, flinching involuntarily. The attack he expected never came. When he looked again, the man had sat back down upon the throne.
"You may go, Sherit."
Sherit stood, lowering his faceplate again. He took a deep bow and walked away. He had reached the door when his arm collapsed inward upon itself. He turned, screaming in agony, and saw the man's face twisted into a mask of hatred.
No words were spoken. Sherit's voice gave out long before his body did. When the man was finished with his torture, Sherit had been turned completely inside out, yet all of the gruesome details of his now misshapen body were hidden inside the Guardsman's armor, left pristine and untouched.
"So," the man said, standing from his throne. "The rebels now know of when the body switch will take place. My troops think I am insane. Perhaps it is time I took an active role in the world once again. My face on posters and television screens is not enough. The world does not recognize me as their unquestioned Ruler."
"They will learn," the man shouted to the world outside the window. "They will learn that I am still the Destroyer!"
* * * * *
"Tear her apart!" one of the creatures hissed. It's face looked like black molten wax had been poured on the left side. Its two compatriots were each deformed as well, with sharp yellow teeth and long, blackened fingernails. They hissed malevolently at the thing that had just appeared in their midst.
Mary Ochiro hissed in return, letting her hood fall to her shoulders so that they could see her own deformities. She didn't know what to make of these creatures, who had the shape of the humans she feared so much, but had the features of mutants like her.
The bravest creature, the one with the molten face, swung a tentative arm at Mary. She reacted instinctively, clawing at him and drawing blood. She was surprised that he didn't even notice the poison seeping into the wound. Her fear increased.
She looked for a way out, but could see nothing but desert around her. In the distance, she did see greenery, but there was no way for her to reach it. Still hissing, Mary focused her mind on reading one of her aggressors.
While she was concentrating, the three creatures fell upon her, biting at her thick skin. Their bites didn't penetrate at first, but they kept at it, and Mary could feel the pain of their rotting teeth. She finally reached into one of their minds and found only animal thoughts, totally instinctual reactions. This confused her even more as to what they might be.
Mary let out a loud hiss of pain as the first set of teeth penetrated her scales to find the all-too-human flesh beneath. Then another set bit in beneath her knee, and a third set took a solid bite out of her hand. Had she been able to, she would have cried in confusion. Animals were her friends! They would never treat her this way!
A familiar sound split the air. It was the guns of men, firing at a rapid-fire pace, making noises like an angry, chittering squirrel.
One of the sets of teeth lost its grip and Mary felt the body fall off of hers. The pathetic creature had several holes in him, rust-colored life's blood pouring out of them. The firing continued until the other two dropped off as well. Mary looked at the red blood streaming from her own small wounds and felt sadness for the ends of these pathetic creatures. She laid face down in the sand.
"It's a woman! Harris, check to see if she's all right!" The voice was human, deep and male. It issued other commands, but Mary wasn't listening. She was instead waiting intently for the human that she smelled coming. He smelled even stronger than most humans did to her, obviously lacking the benefit of deodorants and perfumes that most humans wore.
A calloused hand pulled gently on her hood, which had fallen back over her head. "Hey, are you okay?"
The man gasped when he pulled the hood back and then jerked her head around so she could face him. She stared into his wide, panic-stricken eyes, and knew that he was about to kill her. Desperately, she swung a clawed hand out at him. The man fell back away from the attack and raised his knobby gun at her.
"She's a mutant! Kill it!"
There was a sharp crack and a flash of light, and then a bolt of crackling blue split the reddish clouds and dove straight into the man with the gun. He screamed, briefly, then disintegrated into a pile of fine white dust. The other three, who were running to his aid, turned and ran the other way. Mary watched them run, and crawled gingerly over to the pile of dust. It smelled like salt.
"I hope they didn't harm you. After all, you're not one of my creations, are you?"
Standing above Mary, floating in mid-air and beaming majestically, was the most handsome man she had ever seen. His golden hair cascaded down to his broad shoulders. He wore a white robe, open to the navel, tied off at the waist with a red cord. His feet were barefoot.
Mary tried to read his mind and found that she couldn't. She gazed helplessly up at him.
"Nothing to say to me?" he asked, floating softly towards the ground. His feet stayed mere inches away from the burning sands that covered the area. He raised his head and looked down his nose at her.
"You can't speak, is that it? Well, I may not be able to change my creations' hideous features, but I can certainly change yours."
With a gesture, Mary was transformed. Her back straightened, and her scales faded to be replaced by perfectly white skin. Long black hair replaced the scaly hide on the back of her head, and in place of claws, she had human fingers. When she tried to hiss in surprise, a startled "Aaah!" escaped her lips.
She covered her mouth with her new hands. "I...can talk," she said quietly, not daring to believe it. "I can talk!" she cried out.
"Yes, Mary, you can talk. You may call me David. I am the savior of this world."
Mary looked up at David. "How did you fix me?"
"It's quite simple, really. Your features weren't modified by the radiation, like everyone else. Just a genetic quirk, I expect. That's fixed now. Come, you must be starving."
Before she could protest, Mary was lifted into the air and began floating alongside David. As they buzzed quietly above the sands, Mary reached up and felt her human face. Tears rolled from her eyes.
A few minutes later, they left the desert wasteland and entered a lush forested area. The air was warm here, but not as blistering hot as it had been outside. Pools of clear water were interspersed with tropical foliage. Straw huts indicated dwellings, and Mary saw a few humans walking around the homes. She covered her face with her hood, then sheepishly removed it when she realized that she was human now.
David set her down in a wooden chair at the head of a black marble banquet table. He closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them, foods of all kinds covered the table. Mary reached for a hunk of meat and stuffed it into her mouth. She nearly choked when the first bite went down, only half-chewed without her fangs to gnaw it. She slowed her eating, getting used to these new blunt teeth.
All the while, David just stared curiously at her. His feet never touched the ground. One of the human children, a girl of around six, came over to him and spoke in hushed tones. He bent down, nodded and smiled, and the girl ran away.
"Who are these people?" Mary thought at him. He wasn't one of her family, so of course he didn't pick up the thought. She forced herself to say the words, and they sounded strange to her.
"They are my creations," David answered. "I created everything in and around the Garden."
"I'm not your creation," Mary said.
"No," David replied. "I know that. You have come from another dimension, much as my father did. You are the only thing in this world that is not my creation. I am very curious about you."
"What about the desert?" Mary asked, drinking down a flask of green wine.
"I do not know what possessed me to create the world in this way. My mother and father were also gods, in their own way. Perhaps it was their way of challenging their child to create an imperfect world for his creations to run wild in."
"Where are your mother and father?" Mary asked.
"Gone," David said sadly. He was silent for a few minutes before Mary spoke again.
"My father is gone. He died," she offered.
"My mother and father have not died," David barked angrily. His voice softened as Mary shrunk back. "They are gods. They have just gone on to other planes."
"My mother was not a god," Mary said thoughtfully. "My father was...different from other humans, but not a god either. He was a Golden Dragon."
"Golden Dragon?" David said. "Is your mother named Dark Rose?"
"No," Mary said. "Dark Rose was my father's friend."
David smiled as if he had just unlocked a mystery. "My mother was related to Dark Rose, in a way. She was not as beautiful as Dark Rose, though. That was her curse. Still, her people loved her, until I erased them in favor of my own."
Mary stood up from the table, full of the food and drink she had been given. David closed his eyes and the remaining food vanished, along with the marble table and the wooden chair. In its place was a soft mattress.
"Sleep, Mary. We will discuss my plans for my world in the morning."
Mary obediently got down on the mattress and fell asleep. David stared lovingly at her for a moment, then floated in the direction that the child had gone.
He soon came upon the child, holding a bloody knife and drinking blood from a wooden bowl.
"Killed both of your parents, did you?"
The child nodded nervously. "You said I could."
David nodded. "It was an interesting sensation. Your elation and guilt, flowing together with their shock, sadness and fear. Thank you."
David closed his eyes and the child disappeared. He felt her mental presence fade away in his mind. The hut that she and her parents had occupied was gone as if it had never existed. David floated away to oversee more of his Garden.
"I think that I shall allow murder to remain in my world," he said. "It is an interesting mix of emotion."
Mary woke the next morning with a warm feeling. She reached up with her hand and ran her fingers through her long black hair. For the first time in her life, she felt beautiful.
She sniffed the air, but found that her nose could no longer pick up the nuances around her. It smelled fresh and green, but she couldn't make out what kind of plants surrounded her, or how many people were nearby. It seemed that all vestiges of the COIL gene were gone.
Her instincts, sharpened by years of experience being hunted by GENOCIDE and the Cult of the Wyrm, were still strong. She knew that something was wrong. After a quick visual check of her immediate area, she began wandering quietly through the foliage. A few minutes later, she came upon the disturbance she had picked up on.
Ten men, dressed in jungle camouflage ceramic armor, were moving silently through the trees. Each of them carried an assault blaster. The lead soldier, a dark man with a scruffy black beard, raised his right hand in a symbol for them to stop. Mary froze.
After a few seconds of looking around, they began moving again. Mary fell in behind and followed them. They were moving slowly, being careful to avoid making any noise. They reached a vantage point from which they could see into the cleared parts of the Garden. David was floating in a lotus position, oblivious to the danger around him.
The dark leader raised his gun, aiming at David's head. He began to squeeze the trigger.
"No!" Mary yelled. David's eyes snapped open and he whirled to see his attackers. Without a second thought, he eliminated the threat. Their guns turned into small forest creatures, bit their hands and ran away. While they were staring with horror at this, ten equally-sized prison cells arose from the earth. Their mossy doors peeled open, and a vacuum sucked the ten would-be assassins inside. When the earthen containers sealed shut, they slid back down to the earth from which they had come, leaving only ten holes in the ground where David could look down upon his prisoners.
"Why would you seek to kill me, your creator?" he asked.
"You're not our creator! You're a psycho, worse than your mother, Dire..."
The man almost had time to finish before his hole closed over him. His death scream seemed to emanate from the earth itself. David closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"I created everything in and around the Garden," David said forcefully. "Soon, I will remake this hideous world into a paradise."
"You'll kill everyone who lives in the outskirts if you do that!" one of the prisoners yelled.
David bent down to look into the man's cell. "I can do anything I want to those people," he said. "After all, except for Mary, you're all just figments of my imagination."
Mary had been silent up to this point, watching to see what happened. When David said that, she saw the flicker of insanity in his eyes. It reminded her of the Wyrm Cult disciples, and the deadly fanaticism of GENOCIDE. They did what they believed was right, which made them more frightening than Doctor Destroyer.
David turned to Mary. His smile frightened her. "I'm sorry, Mary. I haven't thanked you for stopping these poor, deluded assassins. Their weapons probably wouldn't be able to harm me, but I'm glad I never got to find out. Come, let us have breakfast."
Mary walked alongside him to a table which had spontaneously appeared. On the table was food of varying kinds. Several other people appeared and sat down to eat.
"David," Mary began, "will you kill all those people?"
"It's not killing," David replied in a lecturing voice. "Was it killing when the God that you believe in sent floods to destroy the world, so that he could make it better?"
"I don't believe in that God," Mary answered. "Those are only stories."
"I see," David said. "Well, Mary, I don't intend to kill anyone."
"But that man said..." Mary found herself silenced, and her mind quickly wandered to a different, more pleasant topic.
"David, tell me about your plans to remake the world."
"Of course," David said. "The Garden is a manifestation created by my mother, a green and pleasant land where everyone has enough to eat. The radiated wastelands beyond need not exist. All I have to do is use my power to extend the Garden beyond its current boundaries. I've been doing it slowly, but I've had a recent surge of power. I believe it had something to do with your arrival, since I felt it just before I met you."
Mary felt a headache begin, just slightly. "You didn't make the Garden?"
"No," David responded. "My mother created it, as she created all of these people before my birth. She told me that herself. But they are mine, they aren't real. When I've expanded the Garden, I will create new people, better ones."
Mary's headache increased. She found it hard to think, but managed to form another question. "What about animals?"
"The animals were created by my mother as well. They are simply beasts, and will be easier to recreate than the people. You can watch with me, Mary. You will be my wife."
The headache intensified and Mary felt herself spinning. She passed out and fell to the ground.
* * * * *
When she awoke, Mary was looking up at David. "I think you were having trouble adjusting to my power," he said. "I invested quite a bit to return your human form."
"Return my human form?" Mary muttered, still somewhat dazed.
"Yes, I cured your hideous mutation. I made you human."
"Human," Mary said. "Yes, you made me into a human."
"I'm going to rest, Mary. Tomorrow we will begin the creation of our new world."
David lowered himself to her, floating right next to her. He lowered his head and gave her a gentle kiss on the lips. He drew back a second later. "You're only the second person I've ever touched," David said.
As he floated away, Mary tried to stop the chaotic thoughts in her head. Everything that he had said, all the conflicting thoughts she had experienced before passing out, it was more intense than she was used to. His transformation had gone beyond her body. The COIL gene's effects had obviously been present in her mind as well. It was too much to comprehend, being human.
Mary didn't realize that she had wandered back to the prisoners until she heard one of the voices bark at her.
"Hey! Are you going to let him murder us?"
"It's not murder," Mary replied. She looked down into the man's cell. "He created you."
Laughter was the response. "Is that what he told you? Listen, if anyone created me, it sure wasn't David or his psycho mother! I've been around longer than either of them! I fought in the skirmishes just after the Apocalypse!"
"The Apocalypse?" Mary stuttered, struggling with the words.
"The day when the missiles were loosed upon the world. The day when civilization ended, and this..." The man gestured all around him. "This took its place."
"Then David's mother didn't create the world?"
"The world created David's mother! She was a mutant, and the radiation made her powers go all screwy. Made her mind all screwy, too. She developed the Garden and a god-complex. At least she wasn't here all that often! But a long while back, she returned, with a new man from some dimension she'd been visiting. They had a son. The father left the dimension soon after that. David developed a worse god complex than his mother had ever had. One day, she was gone and he was here, ruling the Garden. And it's slowly been expanding ever since!"
"You're lying," Mary said, but her voice was not certain.
"I'm lying that there was a war and that David's mother was a crazy mutant, or David's lying that he's a God and he created all this? Think about it."
Mary wandered off, deeply disturbed. She tuned out the rest of the man's words. Her mind kept returning to what David had said about the animals. They were simple beasts, easier than humans? But Mary knew that wasn't true! Humans were hateful and cruel, and beasts showed her kindness and emotion. Humans were simple, they just lived to hate and to destroy themselves and others.
In a flash of clarity, Mary's thought processes returned to normal. She had been duped, controlled by David's power, since she got here. Now the power was hers to wield.
She concentrated all of her new energies into the ground and the cells split apart. The nine survivors climbed out of the holes and looked at Mary. Her entire body glowed with white light, and her hair spread out behind her in a corona. She felt powerful and alive. Her thoughts raced, faster than they ever had before. She considered what she was doing, and found that she was suppressing her instincts. She had never done it before. Her conscious thought had freed her from David's mind control. Human thoughts helped her decide what to do.
"Run," she said to the men, the power in her force surprising her. "And don't look back."
Mary walked slowly towards the area where David had floated off to. She let the anger and power build inside her. He had made her human, something she had hated and feared for all her life. He considered animals, who had been her friends, less than even the humans he casually exterminated. And he, a mad god, had made her fall in love with him. Because of him, she knew what she had to do, and she had the thought processes to hate it.
"David!" she called out. The forest peeled away, as if in obedience to her righteous anger. Revealed in the center was the serene form of David. His glowing white energies were focused upwards, opening a brilliant hole in the sky.
"Mother used to do this," he said absently. "Open a hole in the sky, let other worlds in. Now I'm doing it too."
Power flowed from the opening, pouring out through David and into the Garden. The bent trees straightened, obstructing Mary's view. She began charging through them at top speed.
On the outskirts, the nine men ran. One of them cast a glance behind himself and saw the Garden rushing out towards them. He screamed and fell, unable to comprehend what was happening. The others kept running, without looking back. They heard their friend's screaming end as the Garden overtook him and wiped him from existence.
Mary burst through the trees to find David pouring his power out in all directions. His head was thrown back in ecstasy.
"I am the creator!" he yelled to the heavens.
"You are the destroyer!" Mary returned. She lashed out with her mind, and a bright flash of white energy struck David in the chest, leaving a blackened burn mark. David turned his head and looked at her with confusion.
"You are evil," Mary called out, firing another burst of energy. Again, David recoiled as the energy flowed into him. His power began to rise from the forest and reenter him.
"You are mad," Mary yelled. She snapped another beam at him, and the power began to flood back into David at an extreme rate. His head was still thrown back, but his expression had changed to one of agony.
Mary lashed out with one final burst of energy. David's form turned to pure energy. "And you are human," Mary finished sadly.
With a final burst of energy, David exploded in a burst of brilliant white light. Mary felt the excess power draining from her. She averted her eyes, but the only place to look was up. The power burned through the hole in the sky, exhausting itself at an enormous rate. She felt herself sucked into the power beam and drawn into the sky.
As she looked down, Mary could see that she was riding the tail end of the power beam. She saw eight men staring in wonder at the hole in the sky. And all around, as far as the eye could see, the world was blighted and dead. The sands were red, and the landscape was barren for miles. The Garden was truly gone, forever.
Mary couldn't decide if she had done right or not as her hands began to turn scaly again. And after the COIL gene's effects reached her brain again, she found that she didn't care. She had one moment to consider the intelligence and the creativity she had lost, all that might have been her birthright if not for the cruel tricks of King Cobra, and then it was all gone.
And so was she.