Authors: Nick Kelly
Cat ripped the bike sideways in a skid, viewing the scene up close for the first time. An armored shell, which had so recently included a living human being struck the asphalt before him, broiling from the inside even before contact. The dead man bounced once before finding his final resting place. The corpse’s head dropped to the side, and Cat stole a glimpse at its face. The skin was bubbling, melting into a puddle of pavement, revealing the bones and teeth. The eyes had sunken inward, or exploded, leaving only vacant gaps. What had once been the man’s face was now flowing from his skeleton on to the dirty asphalt. Cat exhaled through his teeth. Corporate Security had beaten him to the scene, a fact verified by the growing body count on the street.
As the second uniformed security agent dropped at his feet, Cat poured over Delambre’s warning in his head one more time. It was time to take advantage of any and all means, which would keep him at a distance, while hoping to get close enough to uncover the missing key that would unlock the next stage of the investigation. From where he stood, the chaos of smoke, shrapnel and fast-moving security forces obscured his view. Safety be damned, he was going to have to get closer.
Cat cursed under his breath. The last thing he wanted to do was get near the MH that was cooking its enemies from the inside out. The first insult he directed mentally was towards Delambre and his mysterious daughter. They would certainly play a part in this entire endeavor until its resolution. The second insult was directed inward for not chasing down Delilah for some sweat and excitement. If he was lucky, he’d have the chance to follow up on that missed opportunity. The third, and most violent, was at whoever had designed the MetaHumans, the original behemoth whose corpse he’d touched in the morgue, the winged Angel of Death, and the one he was about to face.
Cat had little reason to estimate the three Metas had come from multiple sources. Delambre’s scotch-soaked confession tied it all together. There was one mind driving this entire end-of-the-world strategy. When the time came, he’d have to serve as the roadblock between that self-serving lunatic and success. Given that most would classify him as a madman, what chance of success did he really have?
Catwalk ditched the high-powered motorcycle, snapping his Stinger baton to its full extension. The time had come for face-to-face confrontation. A growl rose inside even before his form left the comfort of the motorcycle.
It was time for combat. With a lick of his lips, Cat focused his attention on the MetaHuman in his sights. Time to prove his value.
Time to Play.
Cat tossed a cylinder from his bandolier and watched it rattle on the cracked pavement near the strange Meta. Within seconds, a pulsating flash ripped skyward all around the combat scene. The electro-magnetic pulse released an energy pattern designed to cripple cyberware and render artificial organs useless. If it had any effect on the MetaHuman, it went completely unnoticed. As the targeted MH cast aside the remains of a recently murdered soldier, Cat got a clear view of it. The image sent warning flares burning brightly in his mind.
The MetaHuman, if it was human at all, bore a slight and acrobatic frame, just under two meters tall. It moved with an inhuman agility suggesting that its core muscles were more fluid than structural. Cat watched in fascination as its knees bent forward or backward, allowing it to counterbalance and fend off assaults from multiple directions. Security forces advanced and it swiveled and turned, fending off hand-to-hand and close-range attacks.
Combat MetaHumans generally fell into two classes. Cat’s cybernetics put him in the boss killer class – plenty of skills, designed for concentration on a single target. Boss killers ranged from physically invulnerable to untouchable. One on one, they were nearly unstoppable. Against a swarm, they displayed design flaws and eventually met defeat.
That led to the design of the second class – crowd control. That class was built to level armies. The military had toyed with the idea first. MetaHuman teams were often dropped into hostile zones to suppress uprisings, enemy governments, protests that had gotten out of hand. They could be tanks, destructors, or…or whatever the hell this MetaHuman was.
Cat tried to figure it all out, but adrenaline surged up his spine, crept over his shoulders and ignited his extremities. This thing escaped normal programming. Humans regularly turned to chips for quick learning. That was fine when the combat was against another human. This insectoid MetaHuman did anything but what was expected. The chip-driven actions of security personnel were useless. It read the actions of its attackers as pre-determined conclusions. The MetaHuman waited with killing strikes before the security forces ever began their assaults.
Cat studied the MetaHuman, uploading his feed to the bank of computers in the loft. It wore a humanoid exoskeleton. The being’s arms were abnormally long and had it been standing upright, they may have reached below its knees. Both hands sported elongated claws instead of fingers, long needles as sharp as a fencer’s foil.
The MH’s entire frame was covered in a grey reminiscent of storybook battleships or the smog-covered sky. When Cat caught a full view of its face, he dropped out of its sight. Its eyes were round like that of a fly, maximizing its ability to see attackers before they could strike. It had only a single line to represent its mouth. That line curved downward where its lips would have been, giving it a permanent grimace.
Whoever built this thing did so to portray a being enveloped in, or evolved from, pure hatred. Cat shook his head, snapping a shot through his cyber-optics. “There’s yer sociopath, Delambre.”
A would-be CS vanguard landed to the right of the MetaHuman, taking slightly more than a second to gain his equilibrium and raise his automatic rifle. The MH needed just under a second to adjust to its new attacker. Its weight shifted unnaturally on its legs, rotating the knees on ball joints. As it reached forward, it reversed the barrel of the rifle 180 degrees. Before the soldier realized what had happened, he pulled the trigger, turning his own skull into a violent spray of blood and grey matter.
Cat watched and took note of variables he hadn’t factored in. For instance, how would you ‘kneecap’ a being whose knees rotated 360 degrees, or how would you blind someone whose eyes seemed hard-coded into their skull? A well-armed group of soldiers failed to overtake the single, sentient, inhuman being. EMP had proven ineffective. Dismemberment and blinding would be useless. The cleaner took a deep breath, and engaged the one plan, which had never failed him.
Let it ride and go on instinct.
Catwalk leapt skyward as he exhaled, mentally considering himself a dead man before his feet kissed the pavement. Just as he made contact, he swung the Stinger in an arc behind him, rising to the balls of his feet. The reinforced baton made contact but not with his target. Instead, the Meta raised the most recent corpse of the overachieving Corporate Security guard as a means of defense.
Cat expected as much. He launched into a back flip prescribed by his own logic rather than reaction. His theory had proven correct as the MH swung an overgrown arm, filling the space he had just occupied. Cat landed in a crouch. He squeezed the trigger, firing round after round at the MH from close range.
Nothing seemed to affect its exoskeleton as it evaded by cowering into its own shell. It crossed its arms over its face and collapsed. The posture allowed its armor to cover any exposed areas. Cat retreated slightly as the rounds he emptied at the Meta ricocheted around him. He stopped firing, finding sanctuary behind an overturned car. A new harmony of screams and cries confirmed that his bullets had found alternate targets.
The acrobatic form returned to its feet just as Cat landed on his. Their gazes met, barely-human eye to inhuman eye, the intent of mutual hatred coloring their brief interaction. Cat was accustomed to fighting the cybernetic-enhanced population after four years with DC’s MetaHuman Engagement Force. This thing was far less human and far more demonic than anything he’d encountered during that career.
A normal MH would react to EMP. Cat had already tested that idea with less than stellar results. He opted instead for a more direct approach. He flipped a grenade into the air. The MH tilted its head, following the grenade as a potential threat. Cat batted it with his baton, something he’d learned from his childhood years playing stickball. The grenade erupted in smoke just as it reached the MetaHuman’s face.
Bullets had drawn no reaction. EMP attacks had provided even less. Every logic in the world stated that a direct confrontation would mean instant suicide. So, Cat leapt forward, dove to a shoulder and rolled to his feet to engage the MH toe-to-toe. It was a suicidal move.
It felt right to Cat, so it was the path he chose. If the old geneticist was right, their enemy was a scientist, slave to the numbers of scientific method, theories and proofs. What better method then to go with gut instinct and shatter every analysis in the system. He pictured Delambre and Angela screaming protests. He tuned them out the same way he tuned out every other ambient sound other than his own breathing.
Inhale. He batted aside the claws of the lithe and lethal MetaHuman. Sparks flew in every direction, flashing in the corners of his optic filters.
Exhale. He struck the skull of the MH. His attack was minimized by its inhuman ability to shift its center of balance and defensive posture.
Inhale. He created distance through acrobatics while the enemy struck at his last location.
Exhale. Catwalk drove his cybernetic limbs with force as a countermeasure to the MH attack.
Inhale. The MH remained functional despite the damage to its exoskeleton. The damage it received was not entered in any controls. The programming had not accounted for this level of resistance. The MetaHuman calculated the most reasonable response. In accordance with its programming, it doubled its efforts, specifically targeting the heart of its attacker.
Exhale. Cat countered the leverage of the Meta overextending to create a newfound vulnerability. While airborne, the hitman changed his angle, driving the baton point-first into the MH’s back. With its claws outstretched to catch him cowering, Cat instead had flipped above the MetaHuman. The elongated form revealed ports just below each of its lowest ribs.
Catwalk saw exactly what he needed to switch his strategy. He leapt backwards, swinging on the extended pole of a streetlight and landing on an abandoned car. The insectoid eyes of the MH tracked him the entire way. He had almost no time at all when he felt the shift in wind behind him.
Without a thought, Cat dropped flat against the roof of the car as the heavy armored vehicle flew in low and tight above him. Corporate Security had called in massive reinforcements, nearly beheading him in the process. Explosions and shells erupted around his target, which swiftly evaded and moved to a covered position.
“Catwalk, I’m scanning for vulnerabilities,” came the surprising voice of Delambre’s daughter.
Cat wasn’t sure what tactical advantage a forensic scientist could offer, but he didn’t want to completely crush her optimism. “Yeah, thanks…”
Delambre’s voice interrupted any further awkwardness Cat would stumble over. “You’ll want its eyes.”
“Why? Did you see something vulnerable there?”
“No, cleaner. However, if you’re able to feed its image to us, then it’s most likely doing the same to whoever made it.”
Cat cursed Delambre for the three hundredth time in recent memory. The geneticist was right, and every time he was meant that Cat’s chances at survival and success took a nasty hit. “Thanks, Doc.”
“How about a few words for the camera?”
Cat swung his attention around. The voice was neither Delambre’s nor his daughter’s. Before him, in flex armor with a complex video feed helmet stood ‘Scoop’ McEwan, one of the most famous broadcasters in Nitro City. While most news teams involved an interviewer and a camera jockey, Scoop always took things solo.
Cat shook off his awe at being in the lens of the most-famous newsfeed in Nitro for a moment. Delambre was right. Even if he found a way to beat the MH, which was not a given, its boss would know who he was. Still, the chance to make headlines tickled his ego. Scoop’s question was like a beautiful woman crossing and uncrossing her legs to give him a peek.
“Just keep shootin’, Scoop. Yer about ta see a real fireworks display.”
Craters filled the sidewalk and storefront where Cat last tangled with the Meta. A new smattering of armored corpses contributed to the scene. Trying not to appear distracted, he scanned for his enemy. Just before he could react, he caught something flying in his direction. He managed to turn the slightest amount, and the projectile slammed into Cat’s shoulder and collarbone instead of his head. He rolled with the impact. The momentum took him to the ground. Using his cybernetics, he tumbled backwards and quickly found his feet.
The projectile was the helmet from one of the Corporate Security forces. From the stinging at the base of his neck, Cat could judge the weight. A slight glance down confirmed that the helmet still included the head of its host. Blood trickled from the base of the decapitated cop. Cat raised his glance to see the insectoid attacker launching itself in his direction. He dropped and countered with a Judo shoulder toss. The Meta’s momentum carried it forward. The insectoid crashed through the barred window of a liquor store, shattering the glass and bending the gate.
Hatred ignited his senses. He dove at the disoriented being, trying to find junctures in the being’s exoskeleton. The Stinger baton clanged time and time again off of its armor plating. The Meta began a series of moves to increase distance, but Cat stayed close. Fury flowed over him. Some piece of logic told him to stay close and tight. That reasoning fed the Machine. Cat pounded with blunt force, blow after blow. The assault kept the strange MetaHuman from using its claws with any velocity. Several times, he felt the tearing of his own uniform and skin as it nearly achieved its desired grasp.