The Lonesome Road

The touch of a woman

The maw of the creature engulfed her as Mr Echo flung her into the grinding jaws. Her outer clothes caught on the edges of the teeth, tearing her shirt to ribbons. She landed hard against the back of what she could only assume was its throat with a wet thud, rapidly becoming coated in a fine layer of dust and earth.

Lili scrambled to her feet quickly. There was no sign of blood, which was good. That probably meant it had swallowed Duke whole, so he had a better chance of having survived – assuming that the tons of earth and rock that were presumably being filtered through the worm’s internal organs hadn’t crushed him to death. She stared at the hole ahead of her for a fraction of a moment, dark and stinking of wet dirt. Did she really want to go down there? Was he really worth it?

How would I explain it to Eli if I didn’t?

Fuck.

The choice was made for her mere seconds later. Bright glaring light enveloped her from behind, the blaring horn of the war rig exploding into the darkness. She half-turned in shock, stunned that anyone would do something so stupid and reckless, and the grill of the rig slammed into her, throwing her back into the creature’s gullet. She could hear a horrifying grinding as the worm tried to bite down and chew on the vehicle as Snowy rammed it further down the throat over row after row of brutally efficient teeth, wheels and engine screaming with the effort.

Lili picked herself up in disgust, dripping in some kind of sticky mucus that she could tell was beginning to eat into her clothes. She wasn’t going to navigate the entirety of the worm’s intestines on the off chance that she might find the crushed remains of Duke’s body somewhere amid the tons of rock and dirt. But every second she spent waiting here or pushing through its guts was another second that Snowy destroyed the war rig in the creature’s maw. She needed that damn war rig to get to her brother! She hadn’t wanted to have to do this, but he left her no choice.

Carefully she found the seam of her protective undergarment and peeled the glove off her hand. She pressed her palm against the soft flesh of the creature’s mouth, wincing a little at how unresisting it was against her fingers. She concentrated and then… let go.

The rot spread out from her palm, the meat of the creature’s throat rapidly necrotising and melting into thick sticky mucus. The decay swiftly poured down into the darkness, until everything around her was a rapidly blackening mass of putrefaction and crumbling bone. It thrashed and roared beneath her, a high-pitched grinding scream as it tried to rear up. Its head smashed against the roof of the cavern, war rig making a sickening crunch against the stone roof and sliding a little further into its mouth as the rough hide and muscle of its body melted and collapsed around the vehicle. She barely held on, but at this point it didn’t matter. The beast was all but dead as the rot destroyed its nervous system and ended its final spasms.

She stood amid the melting slime inside the crumbling structure of what had once been teeth. Slowly, bitterly, she pulled the glove back on and refastened it to the rest of the material. It wasn’t lost on her that this was the only way she would ever get to make direct skin contact with anything living except her brother, that everything she touched would end up like this.

It’s nice to be reminded that I’m a monster.

Snowy staggered out of the war rig with a clatter, wrenching the driver’s side door open and causing the teeth embedded in it to crumble into dust. She turned to say something angry, about how stupid and reckless he was, him and his friends. But he ignored her, pushing past and stumbling frantically towards what had been the back of the worm, towards the wetly bubbling piles of skin and muscle and death.

“Duke! DUKE!”

The man’s scream echoed down the tunnel, bouncing off the walls. It was met only with silence. She felt an overwhelming surge of pity, as she understood the real reason he had turned the truck around, risked driving into death. And then…

“Guys, I think I killed it…”

A familiar figure appeared out of the darkness, covered in gore and dirt. The Duke seemed fine, apart from the extensive coating of melted worm flesh and intestinal juices. A strange feeling of relief hit her, one she had not expected to feel. She raised an eyebrow but said nothing. If he wanted to believe he had found the special part of its innards that caused it to self-destruct, he was quite welcome to think that for now. At least they were all alive, and by some miracle the war rig was not actually that damaged. These machines were designed to take a beating. She smiled slightly as she watched Snowy run forwards and hug his friend, the relief almost palpable.

Her other eyebrow swiftly followed the first as Snowy threw caution to the wind and kissed the Duke.

Lili turned away awkwardly and went to move the truck out of the last crumbling fragments of the jaws of the worm. She should leave them alone.

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Burning skies

The flames erupted in a violent, roiling wall behind her, the force of the explosion flinging her out the window and over the gap into the valley below. She landed with a crash on the roof of the war rig, spared more damage only because that she had already been mid-jump and by the reaction of some reflex she hadn’t known she had.

Lili turned her head sharply, the singed ends of her hair wafting beneath her nose with an acrid burning smell. She looked up at the charred black outline of the window behind her. Smoke was belching out of it in thick plumes as the flames consumed the room inside. Far above, the rocket was slowly ascending into the sky with a white hot tail of fire behind it.

Holy shit.

What happened?

How could they have survived that?

She had been leaving the facility, going back to wait for them all in the war rig so that once the men had finished with whatever looting or poking around the building they had wanted to do, they could get moving. There was nothing here that interested her. It had only been a brief stopover anyway – she hadn’t really wanted to come here, but it was in their path and it shouldn’t have taken all that long. She was trying this whole ‘being friendly and trusting’ thing, and after they had started to get on a bit better she had been more inclined to help Snowy out. They had stopped here so that he could try to murder a stranger, to get his revenge. But then it had all changed. The rest of them had convinced him to be a better man, for himself and his friends and the ‘son’ he was trying to save, and the spaceman had been allowed to live.

Well, except the big guy. Eli’s memory of him seemed to be very different to the man she saw – but then her brother always saw the best in people and had a strange knack of getting people to open up and befriend him. The man she saw was at best uncommunicative, and at worst downright sociopathic. He would bear watching.

Well, if he survived…

She sat on top of the rig and massaged her injured arm, staring up at the fire as it continued to flicker in the window frame. Dammit. She didn’t have Eli’s healing powers or his reckless sense of bravery and self-sacrifice. She wouldn’t be able to help them even if they had survived. She wasn’t sure how they could get out of that. Had the spaceman betrayed them after all, burnt them into little scorch marks against the wall?

She didn’t need them anyway, could travel and survive quite easily by herself. She could eat whatever, walk as long as it took. She would be fine alone, if they had all died in the fire. She would get by on her own again.

But she did need them. Not really, not technically. But if she wanted to get to Eli fast, if she wanted to have a chance of reaching him before the facility fucked him up beyond repair, she needed help. She needed backup, she needed wheels to get there faster, she needed people who cared enough to do something. She knew Eli would have left a trail of people behind him that he had helped, that could maybe offer her help if she asked. But they were far away and it was uncertain if any of these people would be able or willing. Here and now she had people that she knew wanted to help.

And as much as she hated to admit it, they were decent people. Taciturn, frequently stupid, erratic, confusing and frustratingly oblivious to so many things. But of all the shitty people she had met in her life, they were among the least shitty. She could see why her brother had become so attached to them. She could see why people wanted friends in this wasteland, why you needed sometimes to be able to rely on somebody else.

What if I’m alone?

Above her, the sky burned as the rocket became a pinprick of light in the distance.

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Distractions

The Duke regarded Excelsior Perseus as his friends were talking to the man…robot…person…thing.

He didn’t know he was a machine. He still doesn’t. It he even a ‘he’, technically? Can machines be people? He sounds like one, acts like one, and – mostly – looks like one, so I guess yes? Then again, maybe it’s just a machine that has been programmed to deny being a machine. All of this could be pre-programmed
…but even if it is, if it is a machine that is sophisticated enough to respond naturally to our various questions and actions, doesn’t that make him close enough to ‘live’ that he can be considered living?

Duke wondered what the man had experienced before he was reactivated by Cornelius and Lili. Was he dead? Was he asleep? Did he dream of electric sheep?
More importantly, would he have been better off being left that way? All he had gained from being reactivated was that his entire world view had been shattered, and he found himself at the mercy of a group of strangers who for all he knew could have been the ones who attacked him in the first place. It couldn’t be a great situation to be in.

And he’s another delay. he thought to himself, mildly annoyed.

They were going after Eli, and this Excelsior fellow did not seem to be involved with that in any way. The group had a tendency to get distracted with less important things – he knew this, and had on occasion been guilty of it himself. But it still bothered him that even Lili, Eli’s own sister, was willing to waste time chatting to androids or haggle.
She had looked at the Duke like he was an idiot after they had left Rusk – how was he so incapable of bartering, she probably wondered. Did he not realise the worth of what he was offering?

In truth, he just didn’t care what it was worth to others, only what it was worth to him. If the Duke was offered as much as he needed, he saw no reason to ask for more. When he ran out of resources he could strike a new bargain as needed, and if he had agreed to be ‘under-paid’ for previous jobs, chances were good that people like Rusk would be happy to trade with him again.
But, whatever. They had the money, food, water, and fuel. And now they had a robot passenger.
Once they had dropped the latter off, maybe they could return to the task at hand.

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Homecoming

The vertibird landed with a roar on the ground, its engines slowly winding down as the dust settled. The crew started scrambling to pick up the boxes and equipment that they had picked up on the way here, to start unloading their previous cargo. Mathew grabbed Eli’s arm and pulled him to his feet. He pushed the boy towards the opening doorway and out into the world again.

He stepped out onto unfamiliar ground – and yet so very familiar. He had never been outside any of the buildings before, never seen the sky or the grounds or anything outside of rooms and corridors. The buildings were tall, some of them stories tall and far better maintained than most others he had seen in his travels. It was cold and clinical and it made him shiver.

But he recognised the guards and the pristine white uniforms they wore. He recognised the weapons they carried, although he had never known they were weapons before. He recognised the smell from the nearby building as a door opened, and he recognised the face and feeling of one of the orderlies as she hurried across the tarmac towards the landing party.

The woman crouched in front of him, a huge smile on her face. She had lipstick on her teeth, as if she had come out here in a hurry.

“Welcome home sweetheart! We’ve missed you so much!”

She ruffled his hair, her smile hard and brittle and fake. He stared at her blankly. He could feel eyes watching from everywhere – behind him, in front through the double doors, at the windows in the buildings around them.

“It’s been an awfully long time. It must have been so horrible and scary for you out there. But you’re safe now.”

“Is Dr Rattray waiting for me?” Mathew spoke from behind him, voice curt.

“She is, sir.” The woman looked up and behind Eli briefly at the other man. “We’ve been told to put you in the meeting room and she’ll join you once you’ve had a chance to make yourself comfortable. Her schedule has been cleared for several hours this afternoon, so you should have plenty of time to cover everything.”

“Only a few of hours? I suppose it will have to do.” Mathew radiated a feeling of annoyance and disdain. The woman smiled weakly.

“I’m sure you can discuss that with her too.”

She looked back down at Eli, face settling back into that artificial mask that played at friendly affection. He could feel her making herself touch him, a small involuntary flinch before her hand touched his arm. There was a hint of something almost… nervous in her eyes.

“The supervisors will be so pleased when we tell them you’re back. If you’re good, you might even get to meet them in person soon! You will be a good boy, won’t you?”

Eli didn’t answer her. The silence dragged on, becoming increasingly tense as her smile wavered. Behind them he could hear Mathew shout something at the people unloading the vertibird. He just stared down at the woman for too long, uncomfortably long. Eventually he turned his gaze straight up and to the right, towards the topmost window of the building behind them.

There was a shadowed figure standing in the window, angled and backlit with an eerie green light so that the face wasn’t visible. It was a woman, gazing down at him. He could feel her presence even from here, feel the cold emotion she exuded. He had never seen her face, but he had felt that presence before from the other side of walls and mirrored windows.
The orderly looked nervously at him, then up behind her. She glanced back down quickly, a hint of panic on her face before the artificial smile returned.

“Come in! Your room is exactly the way we left it, just waiting for you. We’ll get you settled in and then you can pick up right where you left off. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?” She put her arm around his shoulders and guided him towards the doors. He didn’t resist.

“Doesn’t that sound…” her hand clenched, nails digging tightly into his arm as she glanced up at the window, “… just wonderful?”

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The illusion of a past

Lili stared at the hole in the back of the machine, at the exposed wiring and the blinking circuits inside the torso. She reached inside carefully to touch the machinery, avoiding the fine layer of blood around the opening as it made muffled noises of complaint.

Is this your blood?

How could it have blood? It was a machine. That seemed like a wasteful design choice. How could the blood still be here, not smeared away on the sand? Perhaps it had belonged to someone else. Perhaps it was lying and there were others here – or had been recently, if this was their blood.

But then, synths were designed to look as human as possible, right up until the point where it turned out they weren’t. Synths were weapons, they were dangerous and they were never sent anywhere without purpose. In many ways, she was the same. She took her hand out of the chest cavity and stood up, stepping away and back towards the war rig with barely a second glance. If it was going to kill them, it would have already done it. Without function below the head, it was currently harmless – to her, at least. The others could pick it up.

She stared back at the ruins of the town behind them. It was a brown smear in the dust down the ridge, ancient and useless and forgotten. The more Cornelius had talked about his happy past, the more she had been certain that it wasn’t true. There were too many specific details, too much happiness and whimsy in the story for it to possibly be true. Human memory wasn’t that good, and neither was human life. A part of her had tried to prepare him for that eventuality on the way here. But for all his supposed intelligence, he was surprisingly obtuse – or possibly in serious denial until the obvious was placed in front of his eyes and he couldn’t pretend anymore.

When they had stood in front of the ruins of the town, ruins that were obviously over a hundred years old, she had seen something break in his eyes as he collapsed with a cry. A bitter sadistic part of her was happy to see his pain, to see that stripped from him the way his kind had stripped it all from her and her brother. Another part of her felt unexpectedly sorry for him. After all, for all his past, it would seem he wasn’t a terrible person now. He had tried so hard to get the funds to help them go find her brother, even if it had been somewhat fruitless in the end after she had stepped up and negotiated properly with Rusk. Cornelius was simple and optimistic, incredibly openly emotional to the point where she was surprised he had survived this long in the wasteland – surprised any of them had, had they just murdered everything in their way?

But he did not appear malicious. Not any more, at least. She wondered when they had done it to him. She wondered if his name was even Cornelius.

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Purpose

For several moments, Duke just lay on the ground, his eyes filled with despair as he heard the vertibird take off to who-knows-where with Eli.
Duke had fought, and fought, as hard as he could. It hadn’t helped. The Dragon had destroyed him effortlessly, would have killed Duke if Snowy hadn’t taken the shot for him.

Around him, hundreds of people cried out in pain, then fell mercifully silent. Duke continued to stare at the sky. Eli… he’s out there, on that vertibird. He’s no doubt being taken to whatever lab he came from. They will attempt to undo all the progress we have made with him, towards making him his own person, making him value himself. I don’t know what will be worse for him – if they succeed, or if they don’t.

The vertibird grew smaller and smaller in the distance.

Can we get to him in time to save him? Do we even stand a chance of saving him from the Dragon and his cohorts? What do we do? What can we do?

As the sound of the vertibird faded away, something changed within the Duke. He blinked, and when his eyes opened again the despair was gone. He rose to his feet, his face a mask of utter calm, not unsimilar to what he had been like at the beginning of his journey. There was a subtle difference however – where he once was carefree, he was now determined. What do we do? Simple – we kill the dragon.

…after freeing Eli, of course. Only before if we cross paths with him on the way to Eli. That might be better actually, as Eli wouldn’t have to see what gruesome stuff we do to the guy. But at this point, I can go either way.

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The Facility

Project 173 acquired, returning to base.
Expect 1717 to follow with company. 2 known, 2 unknown.
Prepare proper welcome. M.

Dr Rattray raised an eyebrow as she read the message. The small man who had handed it to her looked nervous and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“It came through about ten minutes ago. They’ve changed their cypher again – probably just to test us, but Amley cracked it in a couple of minutes. I got it up here as fast as possible.”

“A couple of minutes? She’s getting sloppy.”

He laughed nervously, the sound slowly fading away as she didn’t join in. She smiled coldly at him until he became flustered and hurried away.

Dr Rattray stood up from her desk, walking over to the huge curved wall of monitors that encompassed the entire left side of the room. She stared at the feeds with a calculating glare, nails tapping lightly against her arm. A small monitor at the bottom beeped with a green light, recording the tracking devices and employee ID tag movement between buildings. From here she had a view of the entire central facility and a few of the outbuildings as well. There were many images, many rooms and corridors, many people. She could see every experiment, every surgery, every place of work and rest. Nobody escaped her gaze.

Her eyes travelled across them all, eventually settling on a couple of screens in the very middle of the wall. The feeds showed two small white rooms which were conspicuously, tauntingly empty.

It had been over a year since they had lost 173. Officially it was intentional, part of procedure and arrangements that were strictly need-to-know. When 173 hadn’t arrived at the destination, she had moved with lightning speed to suppress any panic and rumour. None of the original staff who had lost it had survived the incident to relay the truth. The site staff had been curious, but eventually accepting. After all, the higher ups knew what they were doing. When it came to doing great works, these things often didn’t make sense until later when you could see the bigger picture. They were all working towards the bigger picture here.

Unofficially, it had been a disaster. To lose a project as valuable as this, their most promising and successful to date and the only remaining survivor from numerous batches… it had been devastating to their research. There had been so much more to be done, so much more to be gathered. Knowledge was the ultimate goal, and in doing so a future for mankind, something more than mankind. But others had also known that it was valuable, motivated by crude human desire for money and power and the illusion of miracles contained in the body of a small docile boy who always did what it was told.

Messiah. They have no idea how apt that word is, and how very wrong.

Of course, she had quickly adapted, found a new way to work this to their advantage. They had released 1717 and used it to track both the projects, and made use of outside sources where necessary. It had been costly, but ultimately worth it. Mathew had come crawling back eventually, when he realised just what he’d done, what they had unleashed. And now they were both returning to the facility, having developed some fascinating new capabilities and bringing back some added material with them. It was almost worth the staggering loss of data and invalidation of the future projects she had been hoping to pursue. Almost worth the time that would have to be devoted to bring the two original investments back into line. She would have to re-evaluate things, gather new materials, accelerate some plans that had been dormant and maybe even start afresh with something better. It could be salvaged.

Still, to know that decades of her life’s work had effectively been thrown away by one man’s reckless greed… It had given her a terrible ulcer at the time and she’d had to up her pill dose for almost two weeks. Even now it made her want to snap her pen in half – she didn’t though, that would have been unnecessary waste. She just stared at the screens. Her face was blank, but a very keen observer would have seen a wistful note in her gaze. She reached out a hand to touch the left monitor.

Fifteen years of my life. The ultimate project, gone in mere moments like smoke between my fingers.

My own employees, turning on me over something as trivial as greed, for money and power.

How very… human.

They’re all coming home now. It isn’t a complete loss. It can still be salvaged.

If Mathew thought he could get away with his actions, he was gravely mistaken. She didn’t give a shit about his plans, or his money at this point. This may have started with outside assistance, but it had become so much more than someone like him could ever imagine. If he thought he could hide behind the boots of a warlord, even one as supposedly great and terrible as the Dragon, he was a fool. After all, the Dragon was but a man.

Here at the facility, they created creatures that were more than men. She was the architect of gods.

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The promise of pain

Lili stared into the flames of the little campfire. The light flickered, casting darting shadows on the rocks around them and utterly destroying any night vision that the others might have made use of in the event that something attacked them. It wasn’t a problem for her. She could always see. It was a family trait.

She could hear Cornelius pacing somewhere in the scrub behind them, ranting and mumbling to the sky. He was a strange man, and he had clearly suffered some sort of head trauma – he didn’t seem to remember her or the facility or what he used to do. She wasn’t sure why Eli had thought she would be able or willing to help the scientist. But then, Eli was good. He thought everyone wanted to help.

The other two were sitting opposite her, staring at her with varying levels of suspicion and pity. She ignored them, rolling a rock between her fingers and then crushing it into powder between her teeth. It tasted foul. It didn’t matter though; she wasn’t eating for enjoyment. She was eating to survive, to find her brother and get revenge. If this Snowy guy wanted to dislike her, he was quite welcome to. She was used to being hated, mistrusted, alone. The only person that mattered was Eli. He was the only good person in this godforsaken wasteland.


She feels him reach out and touch her mind for the first time in over a year.

She had felt his presence and emotions before, in the city where that bitch Lysistrata had finally shown her true colours. But back then it had just been his rage and fear and pain as she was taken away from him. Even through whatever the bitch had done to protect the truck and its occupants from his pain as it wracked the city, she had still felt him. It is a bond not easily broken, not easily understood.

This is different. It is like being offered a drink after dying of thirst, like rest after a thousand days of travel. A whole year of being alone, waking up and knowing that she would have to face another day by herself with no true human contact, nothing as real as this. Now she has found her brother again.

He shows her what has happened, what these people he is with are to him – the three men standing before her and another who she remembers from before. Everything is imparted in a flash, an overwhelming jumble of emotion and information that her brain interprets instantly, recognises in seconds. He is her brother, she is his sister, they always understand. He shows her his year out in the world, his fear and wonder and pain and joy and growth. It makes her want to cry, to see how he has changed – cry with happiness that he was so much more than he had been, cry with sadness that it had happened without her.

She feels him ask her for help, in that way that means she can’t say no. He asks her to be kind, to be strong, to take care of them. To be the Lili he knows she is, even if she doesn’t believe it.

And then they take him away again. He steps willingly onto the vertibird, looking back at them with those huge sad eyes. She can feel what he is feeling, she understands what he’s doing. She understands that he doesn’t think he’ll ever get to come back. This is him saying goodbye to her. Being a goddamn martyr, so she can be alone in this world! How could he think she would want this? Why are they taking him and leaving her? It doesn’t make any fucking sense!

The rage and pain is building up so strongly inside that not even the suit they made for her can contain it, material bubbling and hissing under the strain. The vertibird takes off, taking Mathew and the Dragon and her brother with it.

She screams, and the rage erupts.


She stared into the dying embers. It had only been a few hours travel so far and they did not have enough distance from the remains of the armies for her to be comfortable. This was still enemy territory. But then, everywhere was enemy territory for her.

If he was dead, she would make them pay. She knew she could do it, they knew she could do it – the field littered with corpses at the top of the ridge far behind them attested to that. The vault dwellers could have a fine time scavenging amongst the remains for whatever scraps the Dragon had left.

If he was broken, she would make them pay. Pay more than they could even begin to imagine in their most horrific nightmares. These men she was travelling with, they would help her do it. They might not think it now, think the idea was horrific. But when they saw the facility, when they saw what these people would do to her brother… then they would understand. They would help her tear the place apart.

Fifteen years. She would make them all pay.

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Hope Fades

Eli curled up in the corner of the vertibird. His captors hadn’t bothered to restrain him. Why would they? He had nowhere to run. He’d promised he wouldn’t, even though he knew they probably wouldn’t keep to their part of the bargain. After all, he was just a boy and they had an army at their backs. All he could do was sit alone and sink into a quiet feeling of hopeless despair.

He knew where he was being taken. A year ago it would have made him indescribably happy. Finally he was going back home, to the familiar safety of the little white rooms and the tests and being told he was a good boy whenever he passed. He could go back to the way things were, with the structure and order and all the things he had wanted before the terrifying outside world had exploded into his life and changed everything. Now it filled him with empty dread. He knew they would never let him back outside. He knew he would never see plants or animals or stars, nor feel the wind on his face and the dirt beneath his feet. He would never see his friends, his new family, Lili ever again. He would just go back to his box until they decided he wasn’t a good boy anymore, until he had stopped being useful.

He glanced across the seats, staring with wide eyes at the enormous armoured man on the other side of the aircraft. The Dragon was impossibly huge. If it wasn’t for the imposing aura of barely contained menace and power that the man gave off, he would have looked almost ridiculous in the small chair. The few other crew members were giving him as wide a berth as possible, no mean feat in an aircraft like this. The only one who went anywhere near was the man called Mathew, and even he was clearly on edge. The two men had spoken briefly when the group had first taken to the air. When Mathew had moved away, he had radiated a potent mixture of nervous relief and fear that had made Eli a little dizzy and smelt strongly of sweat. It wasn’t clear if he was glad to be accompanied by the warlord or not.

Eli wasn’t sure why the Dragon was still with them. He understood why the scientists would want him back – they had made him and he belonged to them. He was an investment of time and resources, made for a purpose, so they would want to take him back to the facility to try and recoup some of their losses. He had assumed that they were working with the Dragon and his army to reclaim their lost property. That was partly why he had given himself up: so nobody else would get hurt, so his family would be safe if he was a good boy. But he was starting to wonder if that was actually the truth of the situation.

The Dragon didn’t live at the facility and he hadn’t made Eli. What did he want? Perhaps the man still thought Eli belonged to him. Perhaps Eli did belong to him, even now after the brand had been removed and the others had assured him that wasn’t true. He wasn’t sure what use he would be to a warlord – the Dragon had made it fairly clear that he didn’t think much of Eli. Lili, she made sense to belong to him. She was made to kill, a weapon designed to end things. Warlords liked killing things. But Eli was made to heal and to save. What use could he be? How valuable would he be to this strange man?

He curled up tighter, wrapping his arms around his legs and rocking a little. Tears pricked at his eyes, but he refused to let them fall. He had always known it couldn’t last. Eventually he would have to go back. Now the moment had come.

He shouldn’t have gotten so attached to the people and world outside. He shouldn’t have started to think that he could make his own decisions and not do what he was told. He shouldn’t have dared to think that the Duke was right and Eli belonged to Eli.

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Mother's touch

“Well, aren’t you just darling? Come inside, let’s find you something that’s not sopping wet.”

Eli followed the woman with the tentacles into the little underground dwelling, glancing behind him as the Duke spoke to the man with the yellow skin and… head plates? It was all quite loud and a bit overwhelming. He was being bounced between feelings of relief, of joy, a little bit of exasperation and anger, some confusion and excitement. He wasn’t sure what to feel, not sure if any of it was even his. These people were certainly something.

Apparently these were the Duke’s parents, although the family resemblance wasn’t all that obvious. Still, if you looked past the obvious mutations, there were some visible genetic similarities – the line of the jaw, set of the eyes, that kind of thing. He could feel it in the way they stood and talked to each other as well, an easy familiarity. He supposed that meant these were his grandparents. He wasn’t sure what that meant yet.

She ushered him out of the corridor into a small side room. It was very dark in here, although that wasn’t a problem for Eli. It took him a moment to realise that it was on purpose, that the owner of this room had voluntarily made their room shadowy. The walls were covered in pictures of things and people that he didn’t recognise – some hand drawn, some old prints. It was mostly pictures of men. Some of them weren’t wearing shirts.
There was a young woman sitting on a bed, curled up and writing in something he couldn’t see. She looked up when Eli’s grandma came into the room, her face indignant as she hid what she had been doing.

“Mom! Don’t come in my room!”

“Sorry sweetie, I need to find something for your brother’s little boy to wear. None of his old stuff will fit, but I thought some of yours might. You don’t mind, do you?” It wasn’t really a question as she started going through a chest with her tentacles.

“… Duke’s back? And he brought a kid?” The girl looked at him with a mix of incredulity and suspicion. “He’s way too old to be-“

“Oh yes, isn’t he adorable? Apparently Duke found himself a nice young man and they’ve adopted this little boy. Doesn’t say much though, but I’m sure he’s just shy. Eli, this is Princess. I suppose she’s your auntie.” The girl looked at him in confusion. Eli stared back, equally confused. He wasn’t sure what was going on. Duke’s mother held something up triumphantly. “There! This will do just fine. I’m sure we can tear off those weird patches you put on it.”

“Mooom! Those took ages!”

“They aren’t really appropriate, especially not for a young lad. You can sew them back on later if it really bothers you. I’ll leave them on your desk.”

She handed the thing to Eli. It was a jumpsuit of some sort, completely black and with a few patches with strange writing on them that were hastily torn off. He smiled politely as he looked up at her, shivering in his wet pyjamas and holding the crumpled outfit.

“Well, put it on dear! You’ll freeze in those wet things. Princess, come see your brother. It’s been two years. He can tell you about his adventures and you can tell him about your posters.” She ushered the girl out of the room, smiling happily as she shut the door behind her. “Change and come out when you’re ready. We’ll get some good food in you and warm you up. Oh, you can meet little Earl too, I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to meet you all once he stops biting things!”

She shut the door, leaving Eli alone in the room. He obediently changed out of his wet clothes, putting them over the trunk to dry in case Princess wanted him to replace the outfit that he had been given. It was too long for him and the arms trailed near his knees, but at least it was dry. He could hear loud conversation in the hallway outside as people moved around in the house.

Eli hugged himself. He felt… warm. Not physically, the icy dip in the lake had done no good in that regard. But somewhere inside, in his stomach, he felt warm and happy. This must be what family felt like. He could see why the Duke had wanted to come back, why the people outside had wanted to get in here. This was a good feeling. He hoped he’d get to keep feeling it.

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