[Episode IV]

Hyde had lied to Mercy of course. In reality, it had no idea where Faustus had gone. The carmine-colored, humanoid plague doctor had appeared out of virtually nowhere, showing no sign of trauma or injury as he had dragged Basha and Hyde out of the dirt and clear out of harm’s way. While a ragged but conscious Hyde had sat up and dusted itself off, picking up its gas mask and re-attaching it before Faustus could notice it had snapped off. The plague doctor had then adjusted his green-tinted, copper goggles, gestured towards the nearby hills and, without a single word spoken from any of them, had spun on his heels and left. Severely disoriented and distracted, Hyde had barely kept an eye on him as he’d side-stepped the steaming, still rotating propeller blades and disappeared inside the ship faster than he’d reappeared.

So of course Hyde had lied to Mercy. Not only was it better than admitting it didn’t know anything, it had made it much easier to bear witness when Mercy had followed suit and vanished through her hull as well. But where the veteran hunter was struggling to find his lost footing, Faustus was assuredly navigating his way towards what, until moments earlier, had been the Ezramatheia’s core. Masterfully tuning out the dying while simultaneously ignoring both the living and the dead, he ducked under dangling light fixtures, dodged flying debris and avoided electrical explosions along with the blazes they sparked. Keeping his already bottled up emotions in constant check, Faustus still thanked all the nameless celestial bodies in the sky when he finally relocated the sliding, reinforced steel doors that lead to his private quarters. It was here, he knew, where he would find his muse.

Faustus had been keeping quiet about his role in the questionable chain of events that had resulted in Eremis’ arrival within the Maestro’s chambers, grateful the two of them had finally wound up in each other’s presence. Barely catching but a glimpse of Eremis’ tiny figure slumped into a living room chair with a blank, factory-set expression on her face, the plague doctor had been unable to determine if she’d been awake or dormant as the Maestro had ushered, and locked him out of his rooms. In a matter of moments, the already overburdened mothership had exploded and split apart. Losing the sound of Eremis’ pulse amid the series of blasts, he had waited for the mothership to finish putting herself to bed before setting out to discover what had happened to his beloved mechanical doll.

Now, without another soul in sight and with the dim red lights already flickering from the mothership’s failing auxiliary power supplies, Faustus made a beeline for the keypad. Mindful of its broken screen, he reached in and jerry-rigged its wires, hacking the defective doors open but only wide enough for him to get by.

“One hell of a fucking trip this turned into, didn’t it doc?” With more smouldering debris filling up the vestibule, it took Faustus well over a minute to realize the unfamiliar voice he heard belonged to the Maestro’s shell. Its human owner had evidently regained some measure of control over itself; with a half smoked cigarette hanging between its lips, it also had a nearly empty box of ammunition laying scattered between its splayed legs. Bruised and battered, the shell snorted smoke out of its nose in derision as Faustus wormed his way through the short and narrow passage, “I do have to say though, on behalf of everyone here, this is some thoroughly shitty timing on your part.”

Somewhat stunned by the sight that welcomed him on the far side of the entrance, Faustus chose to ignore the Maestro’s human host. While their mothership had all but imploded and rested herself in pieces among Cirxci’s mountains, the Maestro’s rooms were frozen in the exact same, pristine conditions they’d been in since the day he’d claimed them as his own. His pictures hung straight from uncracked walls while his furniture remained unmoved from their position on his undamaged floors. His vast book collection stood at proper attention on their respective shelves and his grand piano was propped open and ready to play. Even his fireplace was filled with logs, patiently waiting for its next fire to be lit… The only thing… The only problem

“I’ll save you the trouble doc,” The Maestro’s shell kept chuckling to itself as it struggled to load the semi-automatic handgun it had picked up, “dear dolly’s head went rolling under the bed before the explosion killed our beloved alien overlord.” The human’s blatant sarcasm was completely lost on the emotionless plague doctor as he slowly turned around on himself, scanning the room until he finally spotted…

Pieces of his Eremis.

Her torso was the sole part of her still in the chair she’d been sitting in. Her feet had been thrown to the opposite corners of the living room, her legs buried in a heap with shoes in the back closet. Faustus picked up one arm from the trash bin near the bug-eyed shell while the other had been carelessly tossed in the fireplace… Yet another accident waiting to happen.

“I don’t know why you’re wasting your time trying to do that doc, this damned spaceship is dead and fucking done.” The Maestro’s human host seemed to love listening to itself talk as Faustus got to work reattaching Eremis’ severed limbs; her arm went seamlessly into its respective shoulder socket, her thighs to her lower torso, her calves to her knees. Unbeknownst to the general population, Faustus had taken Eremis from her original owner. More monster than man, the crazed, inexcusable mistake of a scientist had thrown the disillusioned girl’s humanity out the window for the sake of his sick experiments. Faustus had eventually found him as well, banished him to a lost corner of Cirxci and restored her to as close to normal as she’d ever become, crossing her heart and promising her she would never suffer again, “We can’t go back to Earth, our ship is over flying, we completely scorched the shit out of Cirxci… We have no fucking place left to call home on this piece of shit planet… And I fucking told you our equally shitty Maestro is dead… So I truly, have no idea what you think you’re doing.. But I guarantee you’re not about to pull some miracle out of your ass fixing that trashed robot.”

Faustus stood up from where he’d been kneeling in front of Eremis, his assignment nearing completion. The Maestro’s host, while still dropping more bullets on the floor than he was putting into its magazine, was almost finished as well, “I sacrificed everything I had… Everything… My sanity, my body, my whole life… I gave it all to him, to our supposed future and for fucking what? Look at me! I have absolutely nothing to show for what that lying piece of shit did to me. No crown, no glory, no immortality. Nothing. I’m nothing. Nothing but a stupid mindless waste of human flesh.”

It kept muttering to itself. Over in the Maestro’s bedroom, Faustus was able to pull her other arm free from behind a heavy dresser as the shell’s voice picked up, “Did you find your precious beauty’s brains yet? This headless fucking freak out here isn’t doing anything for me.” It attempted to laugh, inhaled too much smoke, choked, coughed, sniffled, took another drag, “… Swear to Christ…”

Refusing to acknowledge either the deteriorated shell’s existence or the unsolicited string of sounds it had uttered out loud, Faustus nonetheless bent down to have a look at the underside of the thick bed frame. His relief quickly drowned out his surprise when, completely wrapped up in her own hair, he found Eremis’ unblemished face, thankfully looking far more asleep than dead with her eyes firmly closed.

“What? Not even a “Thank You” for the tip? What a bunch of fucking bullshit… But I suppose you’re going to tell me this is all my fucking fault for doing this to myself in the first place.” Returning to the living room with his treasure, Faustus barely paid attention as the hapless human slammed its full magazine back into its gun with enough force to break the ash off the tip of its cigarette, “You’re a fucking genius, aren’t you doc? Tell me, what exactly did our wonderful Maestro hope to accomplish by turning us into his fucking meat puppets?”

Faustus had not the words to give him as he connected Eremis’ left hand to her left wrist, placing it on the chair’s armrest with her palm facing downwards. Reaching into her neck, he pulled up her folded spine and tightened the magnetized series of bolts that would hold her upright. He then turned her head upside down, double-checking to make sure none of her cerebral wire-endings were fried or altogether missing from the visible section of her cerebellum and straightening her slightly bent spinal cord. Carefully aligning her neck to her shoulders, he allowed it to slide through his expert hands and click into place with a subtle hiss. Her entire body vibrated as her brain connected to her spine, a sure sign she had received no major internal damage… But Eremis did not wake up. Not yet.

“Hey! Excuse me! I can see this little… Whatever reunion… I mean this is awful fucking sweet and all, but aren’t you ignoring someone?” Behind him, Faustus heard the human host remove the safety from its gun and cock it. The plague doctor spun around, finding Eremis’ right hand on the mantel next to her antiquated, unopened, wooden music box… And the Maestro’s shell aiming its gun directly at his forehead, “I was planning on making this quick… But you just had to walk in here…So sorry, can’t say I’m sorry… Least it’s nicer than dying a slow miserable death from whatever the fuck nothing is left on Cirxci, don’t you agree doc?”

Unimpressed, faster-than-light Faustus took a step forward and, before it could react, pulled up his sleeve and hit the shell square in the face with a different kind of smoke cloud. Its effects were instant, with the already weakened human falling limp against the wall as its speech slurred, forcing it to drop its gun and… Very nearly… Stop talking.

“What the… Fuck did you… Fucking do?” It managed to spit out as it reached down for its weapon, astonishing them both when it heaved it up with both hands and stuck the barrel under its chin, “… Was… Off, anyway… I’ll jus-… jusss… sh-…it.” It groaned, its breathing becoming labored as it broke into a sweat from the sudden, inexplicable strain on its deplorable excuse for a frame. It wasn’t long before the shell’s sporadic ticks had grown into involuntary muscle spasms, its skin bulging out and crawling with life as something in its gut woke up and made itself felt, “… No… No, no, no… Stop… Stop it… That buzzing…” The shell gasped as it writhed in pain on the floor, wrapping its arms around itself in a pathetic and failed attempt at squelching whatever something was, “… Buzzing… Louder… Please… No-no-no-n-…” It let out an ear-piercing shriek of sheer agony as a mutated parasite the size of Faustus’ thumb came burrowing its way out the shell’s tear duct. Desperately trying to swat it away only incurred more of the giant insect’s wrath however; it moved to the top of the shell’s dilated pupil and sprayed acid into its eye, liquefying its cornea, iris and sclera. Fascinated by the unexpected turn of events, Faustus kept tuning out the dying human as the overgrown parasite flew up in lazy circles towards the ceiling. Beneath it, the shell’s stomach distended beyond imagination, its steady screeches soon replaced by choked, muffled gargles as its stomach’s living contents scurried up its throat, spilled out of its mouth, and nose, then its eyes and ears.

Remembering his assignment, Faustus peeled his gaze from the feast taking place mere feet away from him to glance over towards Eremis and the empty cavity she had in her chest. He dug through his pockets, wrapping his fingers around the fist-sized cylinder he carried, and pulled out the brightly lit modular reactor he’d been scheduled to give to Basha that day. Attracted to the sudden flash of light, the parasitic alien insect landed on its mostly metallic surface, seemingly inspecting it before turning its large, bulbous eyes towards Eremis. It fluttered to the open hole next to her ribs, scuttling its way into her systems and marking the way for its brood to follow as they made short dinner of the shell’s now utterly useless corpse. Once finished, they trailed after their leader, marching up Eremis’ legs, thighs and lower abdomen, swarming her torso as they jostled each other for entry… But in they all somehow went. Piling into all her empty spaces, they launched Eremis’ operating systems, stretching out her limbs one by one as her exposed cavity was covered up and repaired. Her head fell back before, seconds later, her eyes rolled forward and her lids opened.

“…Faustus…” Her first word in what felt like ages, and whispered so hoarsely he barely recognized it. She didn’t attempt to explain herself, or what had just transpired; she was grabbing at his sleeve for the hand a thoroughly distracted Faustus had forgotten he’d been in the process of reattaching. He let it go, watching her in silence as, in silence, she inserted it into her wrist and rotated it. She then spotted the glowing reactor he held, twisting his fingers until he had no choice but to drop it into his pocket, “… For Basha… Go… Bring him back… Don’t tell them what happened here…”

Ushered towards the door for the second time, Faustus paused, positive he’d witnessed Eremis’ fuschia eyes flash biohazardous green… But with new orders he was forever sworn to obey, the plague doctor didn’t have the time to dwell on maybes and might-haves. He touched the top of her head, ran a finger down the side of her face and headed back out for his next assignment.

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