“Empress,” I say some hours later, now warm and full of wine and overconfidence. “Listen, I have to ask you something, and you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“You can ask me anything, dear,” she says as one of her dogs puts his chin in her lap and she pets the smooth surface of his head.
“I--okay I’m going to ask this as delicately as I can. I need to know what it was like back there, when you were...”
“Captured and experimented on by those animals?” she interrupts, her hand freezes on the dog’s head. “I figured you would ask at some point. I don’t mind talking about it.”
“Y-yeah,” I stammer. “I want to know what it was like inside that lab, it’ll help me figure out what I’m up against.”
She takes a deep breath. “I don’t remember very much,” she says on the exhale. “I wasn’t lucid for most of it. I was one of many failed 343 trials.”
My heart jumps. “Oh, I knew the experimented on you, but I didn’t know you were apart of that project.”
“Yes,” she replies. “I was one of four subjects who survived, out of the three-hundred or so that they started out with.”
“That’s barbaric,” I say.
“Coming from you,” she says with a grin. “I don’t think you have the right to say that.”
“Listen,” I say. “I’ve done a lot of shit, but I would never experiment on another human being. That’s the difference between us and the Martians, we do what we can to survive. They do what they can to brutalize and oppress others to better serve themselves, no matter the cost. That’s what makes them monsters, and what makes us human.”
“You are a far cry from human, my friend,” she says.
“I--” I stop for a second. I’m sort of offended. “That’s not for you to say.”
“Hm,” she says. “Perhaps a topic for another time,” she takes another sip of her wine.
I shake it off. “Can I ask you how you escaped?”
“It’s complicated,” she says a little later. “I’ll try and explain best I can.”
“Dumb it down for me,” I say. “I don’t understand all this science bullshit.”
“I’ll do my best,” she says. “The Martians wanted to create a super soldier who could tolerate infinite amounts of the virus, a soldier that they could control with artificial intelligence, and a soldier who could move in and out of their beast and humanoid forms at will.”
“Interesting,” I say.
“I was one of the prototypes. During the experiments they infected me with several different strains and forced me to mutate over and over again. They used a serum that was supposed to help me control the mutations, but it didn’t work.”
“Well, isn’t it obvious? We are destined to mutate eventually. Every human being has a limit, that’s why the trials failed. The 343 hybrids had to be designed from the cellular level for it to work, in vitro. They are an entirely new species, man-made and artificially manipulated to handle the transformation. However they can’t go into their beast forms on command, they have to be infected with enough of the virus to overload their system and mutate. Otherwise their bodies just treat infections like a normal modification, which gives them the ability to handle infinite procedures. I don’t know how much it takes to push them over that edge, but I’m assuming its enough to make any of our warlords lose their minds and change permanently.”
“Hm,” I say, trying to pretend like I didn’t already know that. But I think she’s playing along as well, I think she’s suspicious...
“While we were unsuccessful test subjects,” she continues. “The in vitro models turned out perfectly, able to shift into extremely strange bio mechanical beasts upon increased doses of the virus, completely under the control of the Legion commanders. Which makes it so interesting that one went rogue.”
“You really believe Number Seven exists?”
“Ah, the infamous Number Seven. The Night Wanderer. That’s what they call her beast form. I absolutely believe it, because I’ve seen her.”
I swallow. “Y-you have?”
“About two years ago I was making my way through the desert when I came across a strange mutation. It was completely sane, completely in control of itself and completely self contained. And it was beautiful, it looked as if it were made of stars. It walked on all fours and towered above the desert mountains, it was a deep flowing indigo color with silver eyes and sharp iron teeth that lined a terrifying smile. It had spikes on its elbow and its legs were bent backwards like a cat’s. Her hair flowed endless into everything around her, each strand as vibrant and lovely as the milky way. She was strangely transparent and I could see small wires twist underneath her skin. I’d heard rumors of Night Wanderer spottings in that area and had traveled there to see if it were true. I was not disappointed.”
“That doesn’t mean it was her,” I say. “It could have been any other mutation.”
“No, it was definitely Seven. The inner workings of the 343n units are biomechanical, that’s why I could spot the wires underneath the stars in her coat. Oh how I wish I could have spoken to her, but I was too afraid, and she seemed as though she did not want to be bothered.”
“You know, some people say that you’re the missing hybrid,” I say.
She laughs. “Wouldn’t that be something? I guess that makes sense. I wouldn’t mind that title. It has a good ring to it,” she muses as if to herself. “I think I would have told you if I could turn into an indigo beast.”
“Right. Purple isn’t really your color anyways.”
She grins and continues her narrative. “Even during the trials though, I was a far cry from Seven and the rest. I was there before they figured all of this out, before they learned that true hybrid technology could not be achieved using human vessels. They would keep me in a sort of purgatory, not quite beast and not quite human. It was excruciatingly painful.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“It’s alright, I’m sure you have suffered worse. Besides, they couldn’t keep me locked up forever,” she says as she dumps a piece of meat into the mouth of the dog on her lap.
“There was one night where my mutation was particularly difficult to control, and I took advantage of the chaos to deactivate one of the guards who was trying to give me an injection. I hid its body under the bed in my cell and overtime, slowly replaced the parts of me that were too far gone with its mechanical pieces. This body is still mine, it’s just modified, mechanically forced to assume the form of a normal human being.”
“You were able to get rid of your mutation that way?” I ask. “Completely?”
“Not at first. I took just enough to function, then made my escape. I was fairly unstoppable but on the verge of losing control of my beast form. When I came here to start a new life I had to slowly replace the rest of me until the infected parts were completely gone, lest I be overtaken by the virus and permanently mutate. Like the friend you brought me today.”
“So you’re all synthetic now,” I say.
“For the most part, yes. But I’m still myself.”
“Is your...brain still the same?” I ask.
“No, I’d suffered significant damage. This is a bunch of spare parts, complete with an uploaded consciousness,” she says as she taps her head.
“That’s old technology now,” I say.
“It sure is. But it still works.”
I pause and let her words sink in, realizing that it actually didn’t help my situation that much. “So there really isn’t a way to kill those things? The hybrids, I mean.”
“I don’t know King, but I doubt it. I never saw them myself while I was imprisoned there, only the very early models that were very different from the actual units they have now. But I’ve heard terrible things, that they’re endlessly destructive and cannot be harmed, especially in their beast forms.”
“Pharaoh was telling me something like that,” I say. “He mentioned they were very difficult to kill.” Difficult being an understatement, I think. But if anyone finds a way, it’ll be me.
“Oh! Pharaoh, how I miss him,” she says and her face lights up. “How is he?”
“He’s fine, he still lives with us. When I get back from Mars, I’ll come here for dinner with Eli and Pharaoh and we’ll all catch up. I’d like to see you before you leave to start your ‘revolution.’”
“I’d love that,” she says. “Oh would you look over there? The sun is rising. It’s actually quite warm, it’s gotten to be so hot so early in the day.”
I jump and turn to the west. “Is it really?! Damn, I was hoping to get some sleep.”
“You still can,” she says. “Come, we’ll rest for a bit. I’m not so eager to send you off my dear, if I could convince you to stay I would.” We stand and I begin to gather my things.
“I’m sorry Empress, I have to get going. I can’t afford to lose ano--” I stop as she takes off her cloak to reveal no other clothing besides a satin wrap that barely covers her body. Her torso is metallic and layered in lovely scale-like chrome pieces, they curve elegantly over her breasts and hipbones, perfectly designed to imitate a flawless female form. It’s so peculiar and strange, I can’t help my fascination, especially after everything she just told me.
“Well,” I stammer. “I can stay for a little bit.”
She takes another bottle of wine with her and leads me back into the temple where a much more lavish bedroom awaits in the top of the onion-shaped dome. Before I know it I’ve lost track of time; we pass the day together reliving the past and trying to convince each other to run away from fate.