The Worst Gift, Part 1
rating: +4+x

Last time on Nexus:
Ruins of Madness, Part 3

Chloe didn't know how long they had been on the road. First they had been in a car that went through some kind of light tunnel, then in a train, then again in a car, and now she was sitting in a small helicopter, dressed in her pajamas and a much too large cotton jacket. Along with her were two individuals in worn military clothing in the passenger cabin.

And he.

Chloe had fought back with everything she had when she heard his voice, had thrown things at him, but he had been too strong and she too weakened. It had been easy to catch her.

For the complete duration, he had been near her, trying to speak to her, but Chloe had not responded.

There was nothing she hated abysmally like that voice, that wretched, soft voice.

The man she belonged to was rather broadly built but by no means fat. Spider's corners ate into his gradually graying brown hair. He wore a gray traveling coat and a cheap suit and tie underneath.

He handed her a Twinkie. She backed away from him out of reflex.

"Please eat something, Angelica. You've gotten so skinny," he begged anxiously. "I should never have let your mother take you away from me."

Chloe knocked the baked goods out of his hand in a panic and tried to retreat further into her corner. She didn't take her eyes off him.

Sighing, the man let himself sink back in.

"I know it's been hard at times, Angelica. But whether you believe me or not, I did it for your own good. For the good of my daughter."

"Daugh… ter…," Chloe finally brought out.

She shook her head in disapproval.

"I can't be your daughter. You would never have-"

She pressed her back against the wall as the memory came up. The heat, the red-hot iron, the sound of burning flesh. The pain…

He avoided looking at her.

"I took no pleasure in it, Chloe," he defended himself sadly. "But it was necessary."

"Necessary… For what?"

Chloe was on the verge of tears.

"What is something like that necessary for?"

He thought for a moment.

"It wouldn't do any good to explain it to you now, so please be patient. In about an hour, it will all make sense to you."

Chloe's closet opened and Elli stepped out of the Nexus. She was going to pick Chloe up for breakfast at the 1780 Palace of Versailles.

She wasn't dressed yet and only wearing jeans and a red T-shirt.

She surveyed the room with a frown. Chloe wasn't there.

She was the neatest person Elli knew after Dean, but her room looked like a small tornado had blown through it. Several books were on the floor and a chair had been knocked over.

Wait, if you followed the thought that two people had been in that room…

Chloe's cruel mother was asleep on the couch downstairs, Elli having seen to that herself after she'd injected her with enough anesthetic to sedate a cow out of sheer annoyance. So she was eliminated.

She strode back into the Nexus.

"What is it?" asked Dean as she came into the living room. "Did Chloe kick you out?"

"She's not here, Dean. And it looks like someone kidnapped her," Elli explained as she picked up her cosmoscope.

"Are you sure about that?" asked Dean skeptically as Elli entered her observatory and made numerous adjustments.

"I will be in a minute."

She peered into the eyepiece.

"Uh-huh, turn on the printer, Dean."

Dean did as instructed and tapped the thin gray disk hanging on the wall. It began to glow and an image slid out from a wide slot.

"I never understood the minimalism of the thirty-fifth millennium…," Dean remarked as he took the picture out.

The picture showed Chloe with her arms raised protectively, in front of her stood a man from whom Elli, under other circumstances, would have bought a car with a clear conscience.

"Who is that?" he asked.

"I'll find out later, for now I have to chase him," Elli returned as she navigated the viewpoint of the cosmoscope.

Then she stamped her foot in annoyance.

"Damn it! The car's disappeared! The jerks have some cloaking device that the cosmoscope can't see through… Shit!"

She began pacing nervously in the observatory.

"We could hack into the Foundation and see who this guy is," Dean suggested.
Elli shook her head.

"The database isn't big enough for me, plus this guy isn't on their radar if he knows what's good for him…. I need something bigger…. Something huge… Something that has its eyes and ears all over the wor-"

She began to grin grimly.


Deep in snowy Siberia, the "Progress" Research Institute of the defunct Soviet Union had built a small bunker fortress perched above a forest. The institute had been established to research the anomalous for the benefit of communism, but the project failed because of the differing ideas of the researchers and the Soviet government. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the fortress was looted and left to weather by the state. No one who lived nearby wanted to move into it, because they had even taken the radiators and window glass. It was lousy cold in there.

But for some months now, rumors had been circulating in the surrounding villages that there was a new master on the hill in the forest.

The fortress had a small helipad where the flying machine touched down with Chloe on board. Her father wanted to reach out to her but she kicked it away. And fought tooth and nail against leaving the helicopter. One of the men who had accompanied her had to be treated because Chloe had bitten a piece out of his hand in her panic. Probably only her father's order prevented them from shooting at her. It did not, however, prevent her from being knocked unconscious with a rifle butt.

After that, she was only sporadically aware of her surroundings. She was strapped to a cot. During her waking hours she saw how she was rolled through the cold concrete corridors and how a plain linen dress was put on her. A woman examined her with bright lights. She didn't understand much except, "The stigmata are gone!"

Chloe didn't really wake up until she was wheeled into some kind of operating room. There were no surgical tools, however. There were numerous computer stations and a monitoring room accessible by stairs. Attached to the ceiling was an elongated apparatus covered with countless wires. One end pointed downward and had a metal ring of some sort.

Her father walked beside her as she was wheeled into the room with bare concrete walls.

"What… What is this place?" she asked, dazed.

"It will all be over soon, Angelica," her father put her off, turning to a somewhat overweight man.

The guy wore almost only denim clothes and welding goggles. In addition, he had light hair and a red beard. He appeared to be in his thirties.

"Is everything ready, Lefty?" her father asked.

"Mm, almost," the man said.

Through her translation patch, Chloe didn't hear any accents, but she could at least make out that the man was pronouncing his words as if he were a native Russian speaker.

"Have to change a few more settings. Stigmata is gone, but celestial resonance energy is much higher than thought. You usually have to be canonized or something for something like that…. Lumiere will be able to flow like good wine in a throat. Once the machine is up and running, I'm gone, yes?"

"Then your job is done, yes. You should have already received your money, right?"

Lefty nodded.

"And you know what will happen if something goes wrong?"

The man gave him a sly smile.

"Mr. Maron, don't worry. Apparatus from Lefty may look cobbled together but always work as intended. But I have to ask… Do you really want to inflict that on your own daughter?"

"What does he mean?" asked Chloe.

"Don't talk about 'inflicting' to me," her father snapped angrily. "My Angelica is about to receive the greatest gift any human being has ever received."

"I don't want it!" cried Chloe in a panic.

"You don't know what you want, Angelica," her father talked to her soothingly, "Don't worry. It won't be what you might think. Never would I let any harm come to my child…"

"Sir, you will have to erase her memory if you really want to go through with this," Lefty anxiously pointed out to him. "This is death with another name."

"But she will live," his client insisted. "Forever…"

Memory erasure?

Behind Lefty, something went "DING!" loudly.

"Ah, settings complete, we're good to go," he announced.

"Wonderful," whispered Chloe's father.

"No!" shrieked Chloe. "NO!"

Screaming and crying, she struggled against her bonds, but she was tied to her cot with leather straps. While she was being shoved under the device, her father climbed up into the observation room and, with a crackle, brought the intercom to life.

"My comrades. I know it hasn't been easy for us since our accident in Antarctica. But we picked ourselves back up, regrouped, and came up with a new plan. The original plan."

The device came to life with an ominous hum, at least ominous to Chloe.

"I'll admit, after Angelika was stolen from me by her stupid, stupid mother, we were in a pickle for a while, but fortunately the German authorities largely don't care about the security of their servers, and Kassandra Winter is an even bigger idiot than previously thought."

Chloe had to avert her eyes as a ball of glaring white light formed in the metal ring in front of her face.

"We've tracked down Angelica. We've secured a base and, with the energetic assistance of the one and only Lefty, we've prepared everything it takes. And now the moment is imminent. Despite interference from the Order of Light, the Foundation and so many others, we are now witnessing the arrival of Him. The object of our worship. The descent of the Archangel Uriel! May our vessel be worthy of Him…"

The device fired and Chloe cried out in pain.

Ku was browsing through Chloe's memories when the roof of her memory was breached. A kind of white glowing mass came through the hole. Beams of light shot up from all parts of the library and captured the strange structure. They seemed like anchor ropes.

Slowly the thing came down. It loomed before Ku like a mountain.

"Hey, my head, find your own!" shouted Ku to it angrily.

The mass gave a kind of howl that sounded like a church choir. Then it spread throughout the library.

Before it was pulled together again by a net of silver threads.

"I know I can't help Chloe outside without killing her," Ku sneered. "But here, in the center of her mind, things are a little different, Uriel… You remember Lucifer's example, I hope. What happens when an angel fights a god…"

The crowd tried to escape their bonds, but they only tightened further.
"Away with you," Ku said.

The entity was flung upward and carried through the hole, which immediately closed behind it.

Chloe opened her eyes in a daze. The machine above her appeared burned and was emitting large amounts of smoke. It seemed farther away from Chloe than before.

She noticed that while her clothes were intact, the cot beneath her had melted. Her restraints were burned. Hastily, she jumped up when she noticed the heat.

"Feedback loop! Feedback loop!" she heard Lefty shout in bewilderment through the thick smoke as she struggled to her feet. "That's completely impossible! Unless…"

"Forget the machine, where's Angelica!!!" her father shouted. "Is she unharmed!"

Chloe took this as the signal to run as fast as she could to the door. It had been opened to allow the smoke to escape.

A man in scuffed clothes saw her running out the door.


Chloe heard frantic stomping from all directions. To make matters worse, it was lousy cold in these corridors.

Wait, why?

Since Chloe wasn't wearing shoes or socks, her feet stuck well to the concrete floor and she didn't slip, so she managed to get to a gallery where a few small windows were lined up. But from both directions her father's henchmen were already rushing in.

There were no glass panes. The windows were simple holes in the wall. And no one could fit through them except Chloe…

"Are you insane!?" one of the guards yelled at her before Chloe had crawled through the window and come out the other side.

She realized too late why they had shouted that at her.

Screaming, she fell about five meters while hands stretched above her through the window closed around empty air. After those five meters, a sloping and icy wall joined Chloe and she slid down it. It merged back into a straight wall, causing Chloe to fly off the wall and land in the top of a Siberian spruce that had grown along with several of its kind on what had once been the perimeter of the site. Chloe still had enough presence of mind to claw her way into the branches before gravity claimed her again. Above her, she heard frantic shouting. She had to get down from that tree fast.

After a climb that consisted more of falling than climbing, Chloe slapped the ground. She actually wanted to stay down and moan about her pain, but the rational thinking part of her had taken control and forced her back to her feet so she could run as far away from the fortress as possible. Snow began to fall above her.

Running turned into stumbling, rolling down slopes, walking, limping, or some combination of these things along the way. Chloe didn't know how long she had been moving forward when the edge of the snow-covered forest appeared in front of her.

But along with the forest, the influence of her adrenaline gradually receded. Chloe was freezing cold and she was shivering all over. Her teeth chattered uncontrollably as she trudged exhaustedly toward the edge of the forest.

Actually she had wanted to sleep hours ago and on the couch she had rested hardly restful. This exertion here was now the straw that broke the camel's back. Chloe's legs gave way and she fell to the icy forest floor. She shivered even more. Snow trickled down through the treetops as Chloe crawled on.

Don't fall asleep! If you fall asleep, you're dead!

But against all reason, her body demanded its right.

Getting up was out of the question, and what's more, Chloe was having more and more trouble keeping her eyes open. The world began to blur before it started to drift away. The last thing she saw was a large shadow, appearing black against the morning sun, looming before her.

"Oh my goodness, what happened to you!!!"

Network Travel was a small travel company that combined outstanding, almost anomalous service with low prices. A still unknown but rising star in the travel business.

But that didn't interest Elli. She was only interested in the red-haired man at the reception desk in the bright travel agency. There were advertisements everywhere and a mannequin in hiking gear stood in the window. Dean, who entered the room behind Elli, looked around scrutinizingly, apparently awarding eight out of ten points for cleanliness.

The receptionist was wearing a suit with a plain blue tie. Elli was bored with that sort of thing. She wore ties occasionally, too, but hers at least had nice patterns or funny motifs.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" the man asked, but Elli just gave him a smile that immediately silenced him.

"You can't," she replied authoritatively. "But your boss can."

"Uh, if you'd like to speak to the branch manager, who-"

Elli interrupted him with a hand gesture.

"No, I don't mean your boss, I mean your boss."

The receptionist nervously crossed his lips.

"Um, I don't understand-"

Elli was starting to get pissed.

"I'm sure your boss does, though. Come out now or I'll blow up one of your factories…"

The man froze for a moment with a frightened look on his face before suddenly raising an eyebrow with a smile.

"We both know you won't do that Elli."

"That's not what he sounded like a minute ago," Dean remarked.

"There you go," Elli grumbled. "Dean, this is Hive. Hive, Dean."

"Howdy," Hive greeted him.

"Hive as in Hive Mind?" asked Dean.

"Oh indeed," Hive confirmed. "Tried recruiting Elli in the past. Really bad idea. So, what brings you to me today?"

"I'm looking for this man here."

Elli presented the cosmoscope printout to the swarm intelligence. It studied the picture briefly.

"Fernand Maron," she then said in amazement. "How did he, of all people, manage to piss you off?"

"Who is he and where is he?" asked Elli gruffly.

"I can tell you, but what's in it for me?" asked Hive.

"I spared you back in Malta," Elli reminded him.

"You did, but only because you had t-"

"I can undo it," she threatened.

Hive chuckled.

"One more thing we both know you won't do."

"Oh really?" asked Elli in a cutting voice. "Look Hive, right now I myself don't know what I would and wouldn't do. If I were you, I'd be scared…"

The swarm intelligence looked at her for a moment.

"Well holy shit, I don't want to be in Maron's shoes when you find him," Hive then remarked. "All right. The guy belongs to some kind of cult, Enfants de la Lumière. Tried to impose swarm intelligence on the world a few months ago, had thought he'd summoned Uriel."

"Did he, though?" asked Dean.

"Hell if I know," Hive replied, shrugging. "Definitely acted like an angel. I wiped the asshole out, though I didn't get Maron, however, unfortunately. Guess he learned his lesson, though. He hasn't tried to create swarm intelligences ever since."

"And you know this how?" wanted Elli to know.

"Has been under surveillance. Holed up in Russia, tinkering with some death ray or something. I don't know what's going on but he's hired Lefty. Doesn't really interest me either. I'll just steal his designs when he's done and that will be it."

"Who's Lefty?" asked Dean.

"A Russian tinkerer," explained the swarm intelligence. "Brilliant engineer in the field of anomalies, his inventions may not make much visual impact but he delivers. Always."

It began to smile.

"But I'll get him eventually, count on it."

His smug smile fell asleep when he noticed Elli's grin.

"And where exactly is his client right now?" she asked.

She had been perhaps three and a half years old when Chloe's father first took her to the basement. She listened to her father preach about Uriel. For her, it had been nothing more than a bedtime story.

And then came the branding iron.

She had never felt such pain. She cried and not even her mother was able to comfort her.

From then on, it was down to the basement every month. Chloe had no idea why she was being punished. Her back looked more and more like a stained glass window and she began to ignore it as best she could, even when someone called her on it. Her mother did her best to take away her tears, but Chloe noticed the bruises on her body now and then…

When educators in her kindergarten took notice, they would abruptly move. In the new apartment, it was immediately back to the basement.

At the age of six, her spirit finally gave way under the pressure. She and her mother were tormented because she herself was not good enough, it had to be. If she got better, then she wouldn't have to go back to the basement, for sure!

From then on, she always held back her tears.

She always hid her body under clothes.

She forced herself to smile, no matter when or where…

And one day her father was gone and her mother had no more injuries.

Chloe had done the right thing. She had to move on. No matter what others thought of her, if she appeared in a good mood regardless of the situation. If she ignored her own pain.

She had to be a good girl…

Chloe didn't feel much at first, except warmth. Lots of it. Then, gradually, the crackling of burning wood joined in. And then… An electric motor?

Everything did hurt…

Slowly and reluctantly, she opened her eyes….

She was in a small wooden hut, poorly built by German standards. The walls were full of pictures and embroidery, on each plant was a doily draped.

Someone had wrapped her in several blankets and placed them in front of a tiled stove. A huge, black and brown tabby tomcat had snuggled up to her and was purring rather loudly.

Something tinkled and then a gray dog, also huge, came into the room and sniffed curiously at her face. Chloe had no idea if he was of any particular breed, but you could clearly see his kinship with the wolf. The cat seemed to know more about bedside manners than the dog, because he gave a short annoyed growl. The dog withdrew immediately.

Now that he was out of Chloe's sight, her eyes finally fell on the apparent mistress of this cottage. It was a stooped, ancient woman with a weather-beaten face as old as time. She wore a blue headscarf with polka dots and a loose brown dress of a resistant fabric.

"Ah, awake at last," she remarked in a very high-pitched voice.

Chloe had no idea what it was like to have a grandmother, but she had always imagined that she probably sounded just like her.

"Was beginning to think the cold got you," she continued. "But what are you even doing out there in a dress, // barefoot// at that. You're lucky you didn't lose any toes."

"Where… Where am I?" asked Chloe weakly.

"You're in the warm, that's good enough," the woman grumbled. "I found you while gathering wood at the edge of the forest. Had to leave my whole bundle to get you home. I just told Vorobyov, he isn't a doctor but the closest thing we have to a doctor here in the village. Ah, speak of the devil…"

A small man with a slouch hat, black coat and round glasses entered. You couldn't make out much of his face through his brown beard and hair, except for his upper lip."

"Excuse me, Mrs. Nikitin, still had to get my bag, where is the patient?"

Mrs. Nikitin gestured to her apartment with her thumb.

The paramedic stepped briskly into the room and took a stethoscope out of his pocket, which he slung around.

"You'll excuse me, but I have to unwrap you. Move aside, Miron!"

The cat was shooed away, but watched the proceedings intently from the sofa, along with the dog.

Chloe freed herself from her blankets and immediately began to freeze.

"Hmm, still pretty hypothermic," the man assessed. "Stay here by the stove, I'll try to finish this quickly."

He felt her pulse, examined her body, and doctored cuts and scratches she had sustained, especially on her feet.

"Have you told Andrei yet?" asked Vorobyov of the old woman.

"If you'll allow me, I'll leave the police out of it until I know what's going on," Mrs. Nikitin asked. "It's as clear as day that the girl was running away from something. Where are you from, anyway?"

"Dresden," Chloe said without thinking.

"Where's that?" the old woman asked, frowning. "I've never heard of that before."

"I think that's the name of a place in Germany," the medic opined.

"That's supposed to be a German?" verified Mrs. Nikitin incredulously. "Speaks surprisingly good Russian. What are you doing here in the Russian outback?"

The wheels in Chloe's brain finally started grinding into motion, allowing her to reconstruct what had happened in the last few hours.

"I… was kidnapped…"

"Hrm, sounds like human trafficking," Ms. Nikitin remarked. "Just don't call the police, Vorobyov, the poor thing will be right back at their mercy if this gets far enough with the authorities."

The paramedic shrugged his shoulders and listened to Chloe. He then wrapped her in blankets again.

"Malnourished and hypothermic, the wounds will heal again," he then stated his diagnosis. "She needs something to eat, preferably soup."

He was about to stride to the door when it suddenly went black.

"Elli! But don't just walk into other people's houses!", Chloe heard Dean shout, but by then some kind of blonde flash had already passed the paramedic and the old woman and started hugging her so tightly that she couldn't breathe.


Chloe realized that she wasn't the only one who had said that. The paramedic and the old woman were looking just as puzzled as she was at the blonde in the fur-collared anorak who had just broken into the cabin.

Elli, who had apparently raced in here with tunnel vision, turned in surprise and let out a deep, joyful gasp.


Next time on Nexus:
The Worst Gift, Part 2

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License