The Better Man? Part 2
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Last time on Nexus:
The Better Man? Part 1

When someone in Paris asked for a description of Fernand Petit, the answer was usually very short and to the point. Strictly speaking, it consisted only of the words "He's an asshole". That basically said it all. He was unshaven, rarely washed his clothes, and generally made a run-down impression. His character reflected his appearance.

He mostly hung around the 1st arrondissement of Paris, earning his living as a thief. The pickings were relatively meager today, as many people were out in groups and he, as an advocate of quick robbery and pickpocketing, preferred to have single targets. But at last, luck was with him.

A nobleman was hurrying through the streets, in his hand a strange but, and this was an important aspect, also very valuable looking object. It had a distant resemblance to a compass.

Fernand followed the man for a bit until he had a clear stretch in front of him. No witnesses. Good.

He was a good sprinter and accelerated quite fast until he reached the nobleman and just snatched the device from his hand without slowing down. He could hold that pace for 200 meters and even then he was still capable of endurance running. So he ran into the maze of side alleys to shake off the rich toff who started moving behind him. Ha, what a lose-.

Something caught him in the side of the head with the force of a sledgehammer and rammed him against the walls of the house. He held his prey tightly in his hands, however, which caused the nobleman, who had apparently just given him a resounding slap, to grab his throat and lift him off the ground seemingly without any effort. The robber struck in turn, but he might as well have been pounding on the city walls. Only then did he become aware of how livid the man actually was, having caught up with him without getting out of breath.

Helplessly kicking his feet, he tentatively handed his prey back, but that didn't change the fact that two rage-filled eyes were staring at him and his neck was broken with a single powerful squeeze.

Elli had seen many faces, many of them not even human. Well, the face of the boy who was threatening her with a knife was human, and Elli had seen that kind of face before.

Only the owners had all been dead or zombies.

The eyes were a little sunken in and bloodshot, and the pale skin stretched unnaturally across the skull. Contrary to this appearance, the boy, who could not have died at more than fifteen, wore an expensive but also rather worn-looking black coat, with a formerly white shirt and black pants underneath.

"A living dead man?" commented Elli. "Even intelligent this time. That's a first…"

That explained why the AAT didn't work on him. Dead people perceived the world differently than the living…

The obviously undead man tilted his head. His facial expression, however, did not change.
"What do you mean, 'this time'?" he asked, confused.

"You're not the first reanimated I've come across, though the first I've had a conversation with…"

Elli felt his grip loosen a bit. Interesting…

"Wha- do you know about this sort of thing?"

"Quite, don't you?"

Elli was released. The abrupt change in her center of gravity, combined with the considerable amounts of alcohol in her body, caused her to fall to the ground. However, she managed with some elegance to break the fall with her face.


"Oh, sorry."

Elli straightened up again and knocked the dirt off herself.

Then she lifted the frying pan.

"So, why did you let me go now?"

The undead put his knife away and raised his hands placatingly.

"I'm sorry about just now, I'm trying to get out of here, but maybe you can help me."

Elli raised an eyebrow.

"Leave town? What have you been up to? Ambushing Napoleon?"

"Wha- N-No, I'm not on the run from the law, I'm on the run from the one who made me…. made me into this…"

Elli lowered the frying pan.

"Oh great. Now I'm curious…"

De la Croix was starting to get out of breath after the interlude with the robber when his soul energy detector suddenly froze and pointed stubbornly in one direction. That was good. It meant that he was only a few meters away from his target. Only, where was it?

It had become quite dark by now, but fortunately for him, the detector pointed to the Pont National1 There were only two people there, a tall man and a little girl.

The detector pointed to the girl…

Why did he have such difficulty keeping her in view?

No matter. Throwing the guy off the bridge would be a piece of cake. He needed something to show for off. He would be able to make something good with her, he was sure. Something that he would be able to shape and work thanks to this extremely strong soul without it breaking. Because of the pressure, he didn't care at all if someone would miss her by now…

De la Croix took off as quietly as he could, aiming his fist at his victim's face as he half-turned.

He had, of course, applied some of his research findings to himself in order to do more justice to his idea of the Better Man. Now he had the strength and endurance of several men. One such blow from him could break bones.

It was as if he had struck a brick.

His opponent was pushed backward by the blow, but he took advantage of this momentum to lunge in turn for an upper-cut. De la Croix was unable to dodge due to the momentum he himself still had and received a full blow to the chin that sent him staggering back.

What was going on? Actually, such blows shouldn't itch him much! So why did he feel as if he had been kicked by a horse?

His opponent, meanwhile, positioned himself right between him and the girl, who was obviously frozen in fear.

"You know, you're amazing," the Gentleman said as he swayingly regained his balance. "Not many can stomach that."

His opponent said nothing, but merely stood there like a rock. Watchful between him and his daughter, as de la Croix assumed. Presumably he assumed that the Gentleman would now disappear.

Not happening! De la Croix had a reputation to lose.

De la Croix simply rammed the man head-on, pushing him a few feet toward the edge of the bridge. Something was weird. His body felt strange. Had to have bronze muscles, or….

Whatever it was, it made the man not even gasp at the impact. And he actually brought the Gentleman to a halt after some sliding.

De la Croix did his best, but the man grabbed his left arm and began to unbend his grasp with relentless force.

Then they would do it like that…

De la Croix abruptly let his left arm go limp and turned to the right, grabbing his opponent's right arm in the process. While the latter was still regaining his balance, the Gentleman pulled him over his shoulder and straight over the bridge railing.

Then he let go.

And realized too late that his opponent's left hand had clung to the back of his neck during his shoulder throw. And he was far too heavy for de la Croix to slow him down.

The result was that he fell off the bridge together with his opponent and landed in the floods of the Seine.

"So, how exactly does this work?" asked Elli as she made her way to the Louvre with Pierre, which was the boy's name. She could have taken a shortcut through the Nexus, but she preferred not to reveal this ability to too many people. They kept to the side streets, for Pierre's gait alone made him unpleasantly conspicuous. He shuffled.

The dangerous part came now as they crossed a bridge over the Seine. Fortunately, their companion seemed to have no problem crossing flowing waters. No one saw them.

"What exactly do you mean?" the undead asked after a moment's confusion.

"You're obviously dead. You have no pulse, you're completely pale and ice-cold. So how are you still moving?", Elli specified, taking a sip from her flask.

"Well, my master explained it to me in a way that I'm no longer in a body, so to speak, but I control it from the outside, like a puppet. So, with my soul, I mean."

"Hmm, then rigor mortis should have set in long ago, right?"

"Well, not if I'm still pumping blood occasionally and don't completely forget to breathe."

Elli raised an eyebrow.

"You have to take care of stuff like that?"

"Yeah, even stuff like digestion or sweating and stuff like that. You wouldn't happen to know how healing works, would you?"

To punctuate his question, the boy pushed back his right sleeve, revealing a forearm with several dark spots and wounds that had apparently been open and appropriately festering for some time. Elli had fortunately already drunk too much to show any hurtful reaction and left it at a short "Ough…".

Pierre smoothed out his sleeve again.

"Usually squeeze blood through until scabs form, but you're past that…", Elli explained. "So am I understanding this correctly? Your soul has been ripped from your body and is now controlling it from the outside like a puppeteer?"

"Uh, yeah, exactly. The result isn't perfect yet, at least that's what my master thinks."

Elli tilted her head.

"How did you become undead in the first place? Through your 'master'?"

"Through Master de la Croix, yes. He's pretty good with souls. He believes you can create the Better Man just by using the soul and manipulating its attachment to the body."

"The Better Man?" echoed Elli in surprise. "This de la Croix wouldn't happen to be a Humanist Gentleman, would he?"

Pierre listened up.

"Yes, how do you know?"

"I've heard of that society a few times," was the brief explanation, before the subject was promptly changed again. "Why would you let something like that happen to you?"

The undead man became embarrassed.

"Well, my family died and that's when I ended up on the streets. De la Croix took me in. I owed him, I guess…"

"The guy has a strange way of collecting his debts," Elli remarked dryly. "Why did you run away, though?"

"Well, de la Croix undertook a lot of testing with me. Performance tests, tests related to wound healing, anything you can think of. During the breaks between these tests, it got boring, of course, so I started poking around the house. And in the process, I discovered the others…"

Elli raised her eyebrows expectantly.

"What others?"

"The ones he tried his experiments on before. They were… Whew, I'll spare you the description. Anyway, I decided to leave after that."

Elli nodded.

"I understand… But what are you going to do when you get out of town? I mean, without wanting to offend you, no one in France is going to let a living corpse into their house."

"I was going to look for someone who could cure me," was the reply. "And you seem to know about it. Can you help me?"

"I have an idea or two," Elli explained. "But before I do any favors, I want to find my bunch again first."

Speaking of finding, Elli noted that they had reached the Louvre. This was their backup plan in case of a breakup. Gather at the sight closest to the last Nexus exit point. Chloe and Dean were surely waiting.

Weirdly enough, she couldn't see them….

That changed when suddenly something that felt like an artillery shell bored into the pit of her stomach.

"ELLI!" howled Chloe, as she seemed to be dead-set to crush the waist of the addressed with a hug.

Her face was covered with tears and she hiccupped occasionally.

Elli, completely surprised by this development, thought it a good first impulse to pull a handkerchief from her pocket.

"Hey, Chloe, calm down now. I was only gone for two hours!" she pleaded as she cleaned Chloe up. "Where's Dean?"

The question led to another crying fit from Chloe, from which Elli concluded that something must have gone horribly wrong….

"Chloe what happened?"

"Dean- The man- Bridge-", was all Chloe managed to get out in the meantime.

Elli decided to take another sip for now while Chloe calmed down.

"So now, again, slowly," Elli then asked. "What happened on which bridge?"

"Some man ambushed us and threw Dean into the river with him, I think he was after me…. I hid in the bushes over there until you guys came."

Elli frowned her brow. Dean wasn't someone who just let himself toppled down somewhere, he was more likely to topple other people….

"Chloe, what did the man look like?"

"He was dressed pretty well and had an angular face. And a big nose."

"Did he have a hooked nose?" asked Pierre.

Chloe seemed to notice him only now and immediately started screaming at the sight that presented itself to her.

"Chloe, calm down!" ruled Elli. "He's not going to eat you."

The screaming stopped after a short delay, with Chloe closing her mouth.


"We should get moving, you probably attracted the law enforcement officers. Let's see if they washed up somewhere. Pierre, why the question?"

"Because de la Croix looks like that. He must have been looking for me, but found you in the process. Is there anything special about the girl?"

Elli and Chloe exchanged a quick glance as the trio walked along the Seine.

"Uh yeah, but we'll get to that another time. Maybe we're confusing him with some random robber, too."

"There's really not that much of a difference," the undead muttered.

It took a little while, but then the three reached the Pont de la Concorde. The Seine flowed through a brick-fixed riverbed here, as it did everywhere else in the city, with a number of ladder stairways set into the wall down to the water here to allow boaters to get off or on board watercraft here. In front of one of these ladders was a large pool of water, from which a lane led up to the Place de la Concorde. Elli looked it over briefly before she thought another sip from her flask was in order. Judging by the tracks, only one man had passed through here. And he had been carrying something heavy…

"Say, is this de la Croix super strong by any chance?" she asked the undead man.

"Uh yeah, about the same as me, why?"

"Then he is indeed our suspect," Elli concluded, and abruptly made the request, "Lead us to his house, please. Or to where he locks up his victims."

Pierre's features went slack.

"Are you crazy? I want to get away from him!"

"And I want to get to him. Either you help me do that, or I'm going on a quest of my own, and you can kiss my help with your little mortality crisis goodbye."

Elli pierced Pierre with a look that would have made a volcano think twice about erupting. The boy bowed slightly away underneath it.

"All right, all right. But it's not going to be easy. Tomorrow is the Humanist Assembly. De la Croix will probably be up all night."

"Then I'll have to send Chloe back first, I'll be back in a few hours… or days…"

"Send back? Back home?" asked Chloe.

"Indeed," confirmed Elli.

"Why is it taking you so long? With the Nex- mmh!"

Elli briefly put her hand over Chloe's mouth before deactivating her translation patch.

"The Nexus isn't that practical, Chloe. I have to synchronize its time with that of the universe I'm about to enter, or it'll shred us as we step out. That's why the Nexus can never lead to two different universes or times at the same time. It's easier with universes like yours that I visit more frequently, but here my repeat precision is half a day at most."

Chloe was silent for a moment before she too deactivated her patch.

"Then I'll stay here," she said firmly.

"Are you out of your mind? " it escaped Elli.

She sounded less angry and more perplexed.

"This is no longer an easy adventure. You could be in mortal danger… Again."

"Elli, Dean risked his life for me, I can't just leave him alone like nothing happened!"

There was something in Chloe's eyes that Elli couldn't quite interpret. Something that troubled her, even if she couldn't tell why. Something told her that shipping her off to her home universe now was an extremely bad idea… After all, she had swallowed a god. That tended to have unforeseen consequences.

"All right, come along. But if it gets dangerous anywhere, I'll shove you through the first door I find into the Nexus, is that clear?"

Chloe nodded after a moment's hesitation.

They both activated their patches again.

"Pierre," Elli thundered. "Let's go."

"Wait, is she coming with us now?" asked Pierre, confused.

"Yes, Pierre. Less questions, more leading!"

The undead shrugged his shoulders and motioned the others to follow him. To where his master resided.

De la Croix leaned against the wall of the basement room he was in, breathing heavily. Boy, was this guy heavy.

After pulling him off the bridge with him, the Gentleman found that he didn't let go of him even in the water. And in the water, he sank like a stone. As a result, neither of them had been able to surface. At least until de la Croix proved to be the one with the longer breath. With tremendous efforts he had made sure that he floated along the edge of the Seine until he got hold of the steps of a ladder. He had briefly toyed with the idea of simply letting the man sink down into the wet waters, but then reconsidered. He didn't know if he would find the girl again in time, so maybe it was better to take him here. Conveniently, he was already unconscious. He could just make him his new poster boy. Was even better in several respects. First, he wasn't yet as damaged as his previous creation, and second, he looked more like the Better Man his colleagues dreamed of. In the few hours he would only manage to create the basic conditions, which meant that he could create the undead state and maybe teach him to walk. De la Croix had by now reached a stage of panic where he convinced himself that he could keep his victim in line simply by promising to make him normal again.

You could see his growing delusion. De la Croix's clothes and hair were still full of the water of the Seine, his eyes were bloodshot, and in general he made a very run-down impression. He was conscious of his appearance, but he would deal with that later.

First came the work, which lay laid out on a table before him. Lined up against the walls and other tables were tools and devices that were essential to his work of soul manipulation. Better to start now than later…


What if the girl somehow caught on to him and called for reinforcements? The law enforcers would not believe her, de la Croix was too highly respected a man for that, despite his standing with the Humanist Gentlemen. But there were enough riffraff to whom she could turn. Perhaps he should take some precautions…. Yes, that was necessary. His house was completely locked and he wouldn't notice a break-in while he was working.

But they could…

It gurgled softly as Elli took a pull from her flask. She, Chloe and Pierre stood in front of what the undead man told them was de la Croix's estate. It was a typical baroque mansion with a vanilla yellow paint job and several towers.

And very high windows…

They could reach it with a leg-up, but Chloe probably wasn't strong enough for that and Elli didn't want to leave Pierre here, he was the only one who knew his way around.

The door, accessible by an expansive granite staircase, seemed a good alternative. She could simply open the nexus in its frame and then let them out the other side of the door. All they had to do was cover Pierre's eyes….

"Pierre, turn away, please," Elli asked.

Pierre, frowning, an activity that looked particularly disgusting on him by the way, did as told.

Elli then opened the Nexus.

That is, she tried.

The area in front of her remained stubbornly portal-free.

With eyebrows drawn together, Elli pulled a small, gray, cuboid device out of her pocket and read what was on its screen.

Then she rolled her eyes.

"Of course this guy is working with ontokinetics!"

"What?" asked Chloe.

Elli deactivated her translation patch.

"This de la Croix guy is working with powers here that can alter reality. Apparently that has caused a locally denser reality to exist here. I can't open the Nexus like this."

Chloe was only comprehending half of it.

"Are you saying this place is more real than other places?" she asked, having deactivated her patch as well.

"Yes," was the heated reply.

"And that's hindering you because?"

"Wrong place, wrong time, Chloe," Elli replied as she descended the stairs again. "Right now, just imagine that the universe here is strong enough at this point to hold shut the door I'm trying to pry open."

"Uh-huh…" said Chloe.

She wasn't much wiser than before….

Elli, meanwhile, activated her band-aid again and tapped Pierre on the shoulder. Then she waved it in front of his face because he didn't respond.

"Can we get in there relatively quietly," she asked.

"Did you not want to-oh, what the heck. We could try one of the basement windows," Pierre suggested. "They have bars on them, but the ones in the laundry room are rusted through, so it should be possible to pry them out."

It took only a short time for them to get in front of the window. Short here meant a time Elli spent stumbling through an unkempt garden while Chloe, walking behind her, avoided all pitfalls by being forewarned. Pierre knew his way around here anyway and remained unaffected by it all.

Then came the next problem.

Breaking out the grate was no big deal, but neither Pierre, nor Elli could fit through it.

"Oh great," Elli commented. "You absolutely didn't notice that we couldn't possibly fit through there."

"I've only been in there once," Pierre defended himself handily. "The steam there softens my skin, do you want me to show you what that looks like then?"

Elli raised her hands defensively and shook her head.

"Can we get in through any door in there?" she abruptly changed the subject.
Pierre shrugged his shoulders.

"Not without making a racket. All the doors are secured with deadbolts from the inside. We'd need someone to open them for us from the inside."

Elli thought for a moment.

"That, too. Hmm, is there any way we can get to the roof?"

"It's possible," the undead confirmed. "There are ivy vines behind the house, if you're not too heavy- Hey!"

His indignation was directed at the peck Elli had given him. It was supposed to hurt, but Pierre apparently no longer had any sense of pain.

"Not another word about my weight," she hissed. "Well, Chloe, let's see if we can- Chloe?"

Elli looked around in for her charge in confusion. Then, breaking out in a sweat, she realized she was nowhere to be found.

Her gaze fell on the basement window…


No answer.

"Pierre, take me to the roof! Take me to the roof RIGHT NOW!"

Chloe turned around for a moment. Had there just been a noise in the laundry room? No matter, she had to find an entrance she could unlock so Elli and Pierre could enter. Had Elli known of her plan, she probably would have held her back, but Chloe didn't want that. She alone had gotten Dean into this situation, now she was getting him out of it, period.

The house was in complete darkness. Pale light fell through the windows, but the bolts were too high for Chloe to reach them. She briefly considered getting a chair to get around this problem, but then the thought occurred to her that if she was unlucky, someone might notice the absence of said piece of furniture.

Not that she had encountered anyone yet. Every once in a while, the woodwork would creak and crack, as if the entire house were an arthritic cat slowly stretching for a nap. Chloe winced every time it happened and instinctively clung to walls and shadows.

At last she reached the front door. If she managed to flip the latch and open the door, she could look for Elli outside.

It took a while, during which Chloe scurried from cover to cover toward the door with exaggerated caution, but then finally the latch was only an arm's length away from her.

Just a little bit more-.

Something behind her sucked in air in short bursts, causing Elli to freeze in mid-motion. Then, very slowly, she turned her head.

And stared at a set of sharp teeth…

Next time on Nexus:
The Better Man? Part 3

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