Fortis et Liber – "Strong and Free" – Chapter 1

From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Next Story in the Arc: Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. – “Everything changes, nothing perishes.” – Chapter 2 by Dr. Jacob Garvey (Saturday, March 31, 2007)

(posted Saturday, March 31, 2007)

It was a fine day to have a picnic.

John and Sera had chosen a quiet, grassy area not too far from the CCCP HQ in King's Row. Compared to the landscape of factories, packing plants, and smokestacks, the little patch of green was positively placid. It wasn't perfect; there'd still be the occasional Clockwork construct that would scuttle by with some bit of scrap, or a Skull not too far off trying to raise some Caine. One or two of the party would detach themselves for a minute to deal with the interruption, and join back into the conversation where they'd left off.

Today was one of the rare days when the entire Murdock clan was able to get together; not for any mission, or meeting, or awards ceremony, or whatever. Just to enjoy each other's company. A family day. JJ had been given leave from his post in Underhill to come up Topside for a few days, and was enjoying himself immensely. Things were heating up "down under", and the eldest Murdock child looked the worse for the wear; a little bit more gaunt, not as inquisitive as he normally would have been for gossip and other happenings. Still, he was able to put enough of it behind him to bask in the present. Astra and Aedan were able to find a morning in their class schedule that they could have a few hours of relative peace, and were happy to spend it with everyone else.

Similarly, Shuma was taking a break from her instruction through the University and her CCCP classes to spend time with her adopted family. Her normally rigorous patrol schedule had "mysteriously" cleared up---something John would only shrug about when it was brought up several times--- allowing her the not so small luxury of good food and good company. Her "brother", Right Hand Ratt, was also there, on loan from the Alliance of Champions and his work on Praetorian Earth; more and more, lately, he was making Portal Corps trips to help build up and support the resistance movement in that blasted and war-torn dimension. Since their Christmas trip to one of John's old bolt-holes, Ratt and Shuma both had matured, and gained a surety of purpose about themselves. They still had things to deal with, inner conflicts that needed to be resolved. But they'd found their place, their own missions to become dedicated to. John and Sera both knew that it was a goodness, and that they'd both be fine.

Outside of immediate family were the close friends that might as well have been blood relation; and was such a relation, in one odd case. Caradoc Dylan ap Dai, the children's elven Guardian whilst they were children Underhill, had taken up his duties Topside, moved in, and had become part of the family as "Uncle Caradoc" to the twins and JJ. He lounged comfortably in the middle of the group, talking animatedly and darting from conversation to conversation. Caradoc had the habit of finding the center of attention and planting himself in it. He had a charm about him that seemed to endear him to everyone around him, no matter what the social situation. A self-proclaimed and proven "ladies man", Caradoc had a way about him that couldn't be ignored. Nor could his loyalty and devotion to those he considered more than friends. Chris MacDonald, callsign "Transmuted", had torn himself away from his own heroic doings and his efforts to become accustomed to the city to spend time with his old comrade's family. An oddly self-contained and diffident man, there was no doubt that his loyalty was as strong as Caradoc's. On the edge of the group was Sean Murdock, John's biological clone. Side by side with John himself, the likeness was uncanny and startling to most. Sera and the children, however, were able to detect small differences in body language, hints about their eyes, and other details that only those close to John and Sean would recognize. Still, Sean had adopted John's speech mannerisms and even his gait, to an extent; it was endearing to the rest of them, even though Commissar Bella would occasionally give him mock-hell for "impersonating an anarchist." Sean sat there, soaking up the sun, food, and good feelings of those around him.

John himself was---happy. In spite of everything outside of this scene, he was content. There was always something more to be done; administrative work around the CCCP, some new crime that needed to be investigated, building up resources and contacts, testing out some new gizmo of Ivan's, helping with the refugee work for Praetorian Earth or the Shadow Shard. And, of course, the seemingly weekly crises that had a habit of popping up. It was the routine, for John; all of it was attainable, at least in the short term. Whatever threat or problem there was, he could at least see it; and if he could see it, he could do something about it.

John's happiness, however, was interrupted as he looked inward. He frowned for a moment, unnoticed by the rest of the family in his moment of contemplation. The only things that presented problems for him anymore, problems that kept eating away at him long into the hours of the night, were those he couldn't immediately try to solve. Hidden things, terrors and evils just out of reach. The Parliament was one; they would have to be dealt with, eventually. They'd shown that they were capable of and willing to strike against the Rebuild Paragon Congress, and had the cunning to make the blow count. Their last try was just a bit too close, damnit. The RPC was still dealing with the after-effects of the attack on the JTF, in one form or another. The CCCP's files on the individuals in the Parliament were more complete than they had been, but weren't all-inclusive by any means; there were still glaring holes, and in most instances not enough to arrest any particular person should the opportunity arise. Floor plans for their base of operations, overall goals, and some details here and there were about the extent of the files, which John and the Commissariat had shared with certain allies. Knowledge was power, though; intel like this, while not nearly as complete as John would like it, was still several times better than nothing. We can beat 'em, if it turns into a stand-up fight. John was confident of that.

The issue with the Parliament, however, was relatively impersonal for John; just a matter of fact that they'd have to be dealt with, before they became even more of a threat than they already were. No, it was something from his past that bothered him, night and day, more than anything else. More than his new duties as Commissar, more than the thousand different problems he dealt with regularly. Garvey. Dr. Jacob Garvey, the lead researcher on a black-ops research project, dubbed simply as "The Program" by the participants and the majority of the staff. The project that had spawned John, and even Zach Marlowe, the friend and former Commissar whose position John now occupied. It seemed that everything Garvey touched was corrupted, twisted away from its original purpose and bent to that bastard's will. From the time John was "inducted" into the Program, when his squad of Delta operators were killed off to create a plausible cover story for John's disappearance, to the present, with Garvey's machinations targeting John's children, the man had plagued John Murdock. John still possessed the minor cybernetic enhancements that were the hallmark of the Project; muscle enhancers, bone and joint reinforcements, nerve catalyzation to improve reaction time...John no longer bore the symmetrical scars from the operations that implanted them, thanks to his "rebirth" as a Kheldian, but the mental scars carved into him by memory and experience were still there. John's escape from the Facility, and it's subsequent destruction, were seared into his soul.

John had thought that he had ended that chapter of his life, after the Facility was nothing more than ashes and scattered rubble. With the persecution of his children by hired agents of Garvey's, as well as Zach's death at the hands of one of Garvey's failed creations, John knew that thought was a lie. His past was, almost literally, coming to haunt him.

And he was still out there; Garvey, still in the Isles. Just waiting for his opportunity to infect himself into John's life again. The most infuriating, the most frightening part of it was---John couldn't do anything about it. He'd been to various people "in the know", all sorts of information merchants and spooks, contacts with even more sundry connections---nothing. Not a shred of information, outside of the fact that Garvey had been allied with the Parliament for a brief period of time. After he had built up his resources through them, he'd vanished. Almost immediately after that, John's troubles had begun again, renewed with some eldritch and macabre life. Though he hadn't known much peace in his years since escaping the Facility, John hadn't felt the sickening fear he held in his gut, until now. That the life he had built for himself, for his family, over the past 25 subjective years, was a sham, and could be torn down in an instant.

Things had been too quiet; after the initial attempt to capture the twins through Grim Gambol, a specter hired by Garvey, and a sickening picture of John's family---clones of himself and the twins---being dissected that Garvey had discreetly mailed to John at Christmas, not a single thing had happened. More than anything, that worried John. It denied him sleep and comfort. He'd done a good job of hiding it, of keeping it internal; he only showed the frayed edges of his nerve when pressed incredibly thin, which happened extremely seldom these days. He had a strength to him, lent through his family and friends. And yet that strength was the source of this particular weakness, this vulnerability. And it drove John mad, because there was nothing he could do.

John was deep in his own thoughts, and they were uneasy ones. A cloud seemed to hang over him most of the time these days, one that Sera, despite the depthless level of her own content, could not seem to lift for him. She could tell without intruding what the source of that cloud was. Garvey. The man hung about John's neck like the proverbial albatross about the neck of the Ancient Mariner--except that John had in no way earned this particular curse. It was Garvey who had imposed himself on John's life and stolen it, Garvey who had come back from the apparent dead to fasten his fangs in John's neck and drain the joy from him.

Sera could do nothing about Garvey. But she could do this; she could bring John back to the moment, and let him enjoy the now for as long as she could hold off the shadow.

So first she touched the Heart of All Time through him, and opened herself to the peace and life always to be found there, the oneness of all things. Then she insinuated that peace into the bond that was always holding them, the two-made-one, and added to it her joy in being---being whole, and being his, and being a part of this wonderful family that the two of them had created out of their love. And then she flooded him with her love itself.

Knocked from his own world of thoughts, doubts, and fears, John almost jerked awake. He replaced the far-off and blank expression he wore with a wan smile, trying to return to the conversations of those around him. He didn't falter all that much, once he was back in the moment. Mandy, one of the people whom Sera and John had grown close to over the past few years, flew in shortly after, in her full Dragon aspect. Things picked up considerably after that, with another influx of a forceful and vibrant personality at the picnic. They talked of the usual things; the trade that occurred between Mandy's group and the CCCP, gossip from within the RPC, happenings from around Paragon. John's troubles, though not completely out of mind, were stashed to the back of it. He enjoyed himself, even allowed himself to laugh and genuinely appreciate this idyllic scene; surrounded by family and the closest of friends, John was once again content.