They weren’t always like this.
Sarah and Madeleine had become best friends as soon as they met at the initiation for prospective government experimental research associates in a top secret government facility hidden 300 yards underneath the city of Cedar Grove, Michigan. Most of the other prospectives, mostly men, had been smart enough, but lacked the flair for the creative that made Sarah and Madeleine the standouts. Sarah pitched a plan for a bio-suit made out of enzymes that would be as thin as an extra layer of skin and would modulate even the most extreme temperatures to a comfortable 80 degrees. Madeleine had pitched the whimsical and horrifying idea of creating a biological bomb that could lay latently inside the body of a kitten and then be engaged and detonated by remote control.
The two were taken on and transferred to a state of the art facility hidden inside Mt. Rushmore. It was there that their friendship began to falter under the strain of the highly competitive atmosphere. The two constantly challenged each other, at first enjoying the one-upsmanship game, claiming that the competition kept them on their toes and forced them to continuously bring their A-game. However, things began to turn seriously sour at the creation of The Montgomery Conundrum.
It had been a Wednesday like any other when the head of the initiative, General Ignatius D. Cuddles, burst into the laboratory. "Word has come from on high!" yelled General Cuddles so abruptly an intern spilled a container of hydrochloric acid on himself. "The boys at the pentagon got an itch in their panties to get themselves a bona fide goddam monster!" The general took his cigar out of his mouth and pointed it at the room of scientists. "It's up to you, lab rats. I want to see you hop to. I want to see a real-life goddam Godzilla movie marathon in here. We've got about nine months to whip something up. That's about how long it took your mamas to push you maggots out of her diseased and twisted womb, that's how long you've got to impress me. They want a creature that is deadly, trainable and can be sent into battle areas to create maximum destruction. Inspire some serious shock and awe. No more bombs, gentlemen. We've been assigned to make nightmares." The general put his cigar back in his mouth. "Any questions?"
"Doesn't this seem kind of silly?" said a new member of the staff. The general took a souped up tranquilizer gun from his hip and fired a dart directly into his forehead. The staffer dropped to the ground. The room got quiet and everyone stared at the general.
"Get over it, it's just a tranq dart," said General Cuddles, rolling his eyes.
"I still don't think you're supposed to shoot it directly into his brain," suggested another staffer. The general fired a dart into his eye.
"Any more questions or suggestions?" asked the general. "Good. Make me monsters, maggots."
Everyone hit the labs, going for the more obvious connections, giving tigers the muscles of a rhinoceros, combining a shark and an elephant, putting wings onto a king cobra. When Sarah pitched her idea for the Conundrum everyone laughed. Madeleine comforted her, saying that it was great that she was trying to think outside the box, but that perhaps she should stick to something a little more logical. Sarah would not be persuaded and continued day and night working on her creature, sneaking into labs and doing unauthorized experiments. Finally, she had her creature, her Conundrum.
A day was set for everyone to come and exhibit their creations. All the creatures would then be thrown into a gladiatorial arena and the one left standing would be studied further for its possible use. Everyone presented their creations, which had been closely monitored and largely discussed and critiqued over the previous months of development. So when Sarah came with her Conundrum the crowd was shocked. The creature was more fierce and terrifying than anyone could have imagined. One of the scientists, a small, pudgy man who had created a cross between a scorpion and a polar bear, found the creature so taxing to even comprehend that he suffered a minor stroke and had to be escorted to the medical center.
The competition was, of course, a slaughter. The Montgomery Conundrum destroyed everything in its path, grabbing, slashing and biting its way through every creature in the arena without receiving even a scratch. The Conundrum, showing exceptional intelligence, dipped its tentacles in the blood of its many victims and painted the story of the battle on the walls of the arena in pictorial form, like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or Roman triumphal paintings. General Cuddles was ecstatic, his crisp, pressed uniform unable to hide his enthused erection. However, the creature, although considered a rather rousing success, was also seen as being dangerously intelligent and it was decided that it would be kept under intense surveillance to assess not only its ability, but its stability.
Even though the creature did not become the immediate new military innovation that had been requested Sarah became the golden child, the first of her contemporaries to create a truly astonishing leap forward. Madeleine took this hard. She locked herself away for weeks, drawing mad scribblings on any surface she could find, making strange phone calls to leading geneticists that got her multiple restraining orders. She would only leave her room to go on a daily 5 mile run and to pick up more food, which consisted of giant slabs of beef and whole milk. Occasionally she would simply steal a cow. After a couple months of not hearing from Madeleine, Sarah decided to go check in on her friend.
As she walked down the dormitory hallway towards Madeleine’s room Sarah began to notice a strange aroma. It got stronger and more overwhelming as she approached Madeleine’s door. Sarah knocked quietly three times. “Madeleine?” she said quietly.
The door flung open. Madeleine Maby stood in the doorway like a mad prophet, a PowerPuff Girls bed sheet wrapped around her like a toga and dotted black lines drawn all over her body in magic marker, cordoning her off like cuts of beef.
"Have the gods descended upon us?!? The great Sarah Montgomery comes to visit lowly mortal Madeleine Maby! Planning on impregnating me with a golden rain? Or maybe sewing my fetal intelligence into your godly thigh?"
The two stared at each other for a tense second, then Madeleine moved aside and waved her arm. "Please, come in."
Sarah stepped inside. Madeleine ushered her over to the stove, where she pulled open the stove door and ushered Sarah to sit. Madeleine then pulled open washing machine and sat herself.
“So,” said Sarah. “How’ve you been?”
“Good, good, really starting to make some progress.” An egg timer on the counter rang and Madeleine stood to turn it off. “Gotta turn the spit.” She walked over to the couch and removed the seat cushions, revealing underneath a burning fire and an entire side of beef slowly roasting on a large spit. She gave it one half turn and then returned to her seat on the dishwashing machine.
“What are you working on?” asked Sarah.
“Babies,” said Madeleine.
“OH,” said Sarah. “Ummm… you’re… seeing someone, then?”
“Ha! No, silly! I’m not trying to make a baby!” Madeleine laughed. Sarah laughed too, and let out sigh of relief. Madeleine leaned over and looked Sarah straight in the eye. “I’m trying to make them better.” Madeleine winked at Sarah. Sarah almost threw up.
“What do you mean, make them better?” Sarah asked.
“Indestructible. Killing machines. Pure instinct.” Madeleine turned around and took a glass out of the dishwasher, went to the fridge and filled it with milk. She then strolled over to the couch, reached between two cushions and pulled out a large slab of meat still dripping with fat and juices. She dunked the meat into the milk like a cookie and then ate it. “Think about it! Have you ever looked at a baby, Sarah? I mean really, truly LOOKED AT A BABY? They’re fucking amazing. Perfect posture. Perfect breathing. Unadulterated potential. Children are the future, Sarah. The future… OF WAR!!!” Madeleine threw her head back in maniacal laughter, then chugged the entire glass of milk, streams of it running out of the sides of her mouth.
“You can’t do that to children!” yelled Sarah.
“Oh come on, you know we’ll just buy out some Chinese orphanages or something, they’ve got a ton of babies over there they aren’t using. They basically give baby girls away over there!”
“You don’t have the right, putting innocent children at risk like that, playing God!”
“Says the creator of The Montgomery Conundrum!” spat Madeleine. “Did God make that Shetland pony with giant tentacles? Huh? You think that thing thinks twice about killing a baby? It’s a beautiful, amoral beast. You should know, you created it! But I’m going to do you one better, Sarah Montgomery. I’m going to push human evolution ahead by millennia!”
Sarah stood and moved toward the door. “You’re crazy.”
“Check the name, bitch!” said Madeleine as her eyes widened with fury. “I’m not crazy. I’m MAD, M-A-D!!” Sarah ran out the door into the hallway, tears streaming down her face. Madeleine popped out of the door and yelled after her, “MAD MABY, BABY, AND DON’T YOU FUCKING FORGET IT.”
Under layers and layers of dirt, rock, concrete, steel and billions of dollars in government funding, Sarah Montgomery sat on the edge of a suspended metal grid system, dangling her legs over the edge, swinging them like a kindergartener on a tire swing. Beside her was a box of kittens, which she would occasionally reach into and pull out a young specimen and then toss it casually over the edge where, far below, her very own Conundrum awaited to gobble them up before they landed.
“Everything turns to shit,” Sarah muttered, lobbing another kitten. “Ideals. Friendships. Intentions. I just wanted to be the best scientific mind I could be! But where has that got me? Look at you. You are my most incredible creation, but Madeleine’s right, you’d totally kill a human baby, would you?”
The Conundrum took the kitten that was now in its tentacle and smashed it to the ground. It dipped its tentacle into the remains and then wrote on the wall, in perfect Antiqua script, “In a heartbeat.”
“Yep, that sounds about right,” said Sarah. She pushed the box and remaining kittens off of the grid, then got up and left.
Without her friend to keep her company Sarah's days at the institute grew long, lonely and cold. It began to affect her work. When Sarah created a localized personal atmospherics generator that caused an actual rain cloud to follow her around all day it was decided something needed to be done. General Cuddles called her into his office.
"It's no secret that I'm not a big fan of having ladies on my team," said the general, sitting behind his desk in front of a wall filled with citations, awards and pictures with prominent politicians. "They've got womany things, like vaginas and feelings. I don't understand these things. I also don't like all the thinking that goes on in this place. We're relying too much on you brainy types, in my opinion. So it should come as no surprise that I've been mighty wary of you, Montgomery. You're womanly and you're one of the smartest bookmaggots in this place, and frankly I find that combination about as enticing as eating an AIDS victim's vomit out of my dead mother's asshole, am I understood?"
"However, I like you, Montgomery. You know why?"
"You've got instinct. You've got cunning. You've got a mind for war, and that I understand. I saw it in you the first day you stepped into my office, I could smell it on you, you and Maby both, and that's the only reason I've kept the two of you here. Now I don't know what Days of Our Lives, Susan Sontag, penis envy, vagina dentata bullshit the two of you estrogen factories have going on, but it needs to stop. It's turning my war machine into the goddam make-up department at Macy's and I won't have it. I don't care what you have to do to get over this, eat a bunch of ice cream, go see a Meg Ryan movie, share tampon secrets, just GET IT DONE. That's an order. Am I understood?"
Three days later Madeleine and Sarah sat in one of the initiative's conference rooms at opposite ends of a long black table. In the middle of the table was a package from General Cuddles that had been left for them containing a box of tissues, a collection of make-up, a picture of two ponies running through a meadow, a Sarah McLachlan CD and a DVD of Hanging Up. A note attached read, "GET IT DONE. Love, General Ignatius D. Cuddles."
"Look, this is ridiculous," said Sarah, breaking the silence. "Can't we just put this behind us?"
"I'm sorry!" Madeleine rushed out as though she'd been holding her breath. "I just, I got so caught up in all of this, the competition and everything..."
"Don't worry about it," said Sarah. "I took it too personally when you didn't think the Conundrum was such a hot idea, I shut you out."
"I was the one who shut you out!" said Madeleine. "I went nuts! This place just got into my head, you know? I mean, killer babies? What type of place gets you to the point where THAT sounds like a good idea?"
"A place under the direction of General Cuddles," laughed Sarah, picking up the DVD of Hanging Up and tossing it to Madeleine, who began laughing as well.
"Look, I know something that actually will cheer us up," said Madeleine. "After I blew up at you I really started thinking about what I was doing, what I was making. I decided to put my efforts towards something positive, something really beautiful. I want you to be the first person who sees it."
"Really?" said Sarah. "Wow. Yeah! Sure, let's do it! I'd be honored."
"Come on!" said Madeleine. "Let's go topside."
On top of Mt. Rushmore Sarah and Madeleine stood at the part in Thomas Jefferson's hair. Evening was just beginning to set and the sky was a deep blue with the first shimmerings of stars beginning to appear.
Madeleine stared out at the landscape. "It's so beautiful here, so stunningly beautiful, and we spend all of our days buried underground, as though we were already dead. It's disgusting."
"You're right," agreed Sarah. "We should come out here more. We should enjoy this more! Really experience life!"
Madeleine turned to Sarah. "That's why I wanted to bring you up here. I've got something truly amazing to show you. Are you ready?" Sarah nodded. Madeleine took out a large, intimidating syringe and stuck it into Sarah's stomach.
"Ow! What the fuck! What did you just put into me?!?" Sarah yelled.
Madeleine grabbed her around the waist and pulled Sarah towards her, holding her there tightly. She put her other hand over Sarah's mouth. "Shh," said Madeleine. "Calm down, just calm down. Take in deep breaths. Deep, deep breaths." Sarah breathed in deeply. As she did so a calmness came over her. Suddenly she felt light and easy. She felt as though a weight had dropped off of her.
"Do you feel that?" asked Madeleine. "That weight being dropped from you?" Sarah nodded again. Madeleine dropped her hand from Sarah's face. "That's real. That's actual weight dropping from you. What I've given you, it's what I've come up with. It's incredible, a cocktail of enzymes, hormones, mutagens, they all work together to redistribute your weight, flush your system of any and all excesses, hollows out your bones, adjusts your muscle mass. Sarah, it let's you fly."
As the words came out of Madeleine's mouth Sarah could feel them in her body. She felt her body shifting. She felt her connection to the world around her becoming loose and tenuous. Everything suddenly felt warm and available. The entire world was in front of her. Not just the world, the sky! All of these years she had been fighting for credibility, she had fought so hard. She had worked harder to get here, and only now, standing atop Mt. Rushmore with her only true friend in the world, Sarah felt like she had accomplished something. She turned to Madeleine.
"How isn't important, it's why," said Madeleine. "You made me want to do this, do something truly beautiful and astounding. This is yours." Madeleine went to hand the syringe to Sarah, then quickly pulled it back, wiped it down with her sweater, and then tossed it. Sarah grabbed it out of the air and stared at it in wonderment.
"Is it true? Really and truly true? I can fly?"
Madeleine leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. "It's absolutely true." Madeleine then turned, trotted over to the lip of Jefferson's head, jumped straight up in the air, and then stood there floating, free as a bird. "Let's go flying."
Sarah smiled and threw the syringe onto the ground. She too trotted towards the edge of the mountain and took a bounding leap over the edge. Madeleine stood staring as Sarah's body plummeted towards the earth. Madeleine reached down to a button on her belt and turned off the hoverboots she had lifted from the lab earlier that day. She floated quietly to rest back on top of Jefferson's part,
"Poor Sarah Montgomery," said Madeleine aloud to no one, walking over to where the syringe lay on the ground. "The pressure was just too much. She peaked too soon. Came up here, loaded herself up with government-grade hallucinogens and took a flying leap right off a national monument. A life cut tragically short."
Madeleine laughed to herself, a low, quiet laugh, then made her way back to the lab.
Sarah, of course, had not died. Miraculously, the Deus Ex Machina Pillow, Mattress and Beddings Company of Rutherford, New Jersey had set up a giant display at the base of Mt. Rushmore, displaying their new super-comfy, ultra-cushiony, super-duper soft mattresses and pillows for the Annual Bedroom Suppliers Showcase. Sarah Montgomery landed, drug-addled and confused, in a massive pile of mattresses, comforters and downy. By morning she had sobered up. Realizing what had happened Sarah withdrew all her money from the bank and began a long trek under the radar to New York City, where she would establish her own base of operations and set about traveling down the long, hard road to vengeance.
Sarah thought about that road as she piloted a highjacked experimental NASA aircraft towards Keystone, South Dakota. The end was close, she could feel it in her bones. Something was wrong. It all felt... hollow.
"So, we're going to Mt. Rushmore?" asked Washington, sitting in the co-pilot seat, wearing a pilot helmet much too large for him and speaking into the microphone even though he was sitting a foot away from Sarah in the perfectly quiet cockpit.
"Yes," said Sarah. "We're going to break into one of the most highly secret government laboratories and assassinate one of their top scientists."
"I didn't know there was a lab inside Mt. Rushmore," said Washington.
"Unless you work there, you don't know about it," responded Sarah.
"If this place is so super-secret what's your plan for getting inside?" asked Washington.
"Plan?" said Sarah. "I knew there was something I forgot."
Far in the distance Mt. Rushmore loomed outside the windshield of the aircraft. It was approaching. Fast.
"Tell me you've got codes or something, right?" said Washington.
Sarah thought about Madeleine, about all the years of planning, of living off vengeance. She wondered what Madeleine had done with those years. Had she been fueled by that fateful night on top of Jefferson's part the way that Sarah had? Did she ever still think about it? Did Sarah live in Madeleine's mind the way that Madeleine lived in hers?
"Maybe you've got some plastique or something, we can bust through the door? There is a door, right? You know where the entrance is, right? Sarah?"
Sarah thought about the confrontation that was now quickly approaching her. For the first time she thought about it practically. She stripped away the drug-like intoxication of fury and hatred, the righteousness of her anger and the rigid, militaristic fight training she had put herself through to turn herself into an implement of death and destruction. Taking all of that away, she thought about what it would be like to stand face to face with her friend. This woman who had at one time been the only person she ever really cared about. The woman who had tried to kill her. And now here she was, coming back to return the favor. But could she even hope to hurt Madeleine the way Madeleine had hurt her? It hadn't been the attempted murder that was making Sarah go to the ends of the earth and back for vengeance, it was the betrayal. It was the love that she had had for Madeleine that had been so casually tossed off the mountain that night that had truly pushed Sarah over the edge. For the first time Sarah wondered if killing Madeleine would be revenge enough. Could death even come close to making Madeleine hurt the way Sarah had?
"That mountain's coming up pretty quick there, Sarah. Where are you planning on landing? You're probably going to want to slow down a bit, Sarah. Please?"
Suddenly a thought occurred to Sarah that hit her like a sledgehammer to the chest. What if Madeleine didn't even remember her at all? What if she showed up and in these past few years, years Sarah had given up at the altar of a vengeful god to the annihilation of Madeleine Maby, Madeleine herself had been out living her life? What if she had found love? Started a family? What if she wasn't even AT the initiative anymore? All the intelligence Sarah had been able to beg or steal had pointed to her still being there, but how good was that information? How trusty? How old? She had prepared herself to face the raging, psychotic madwoman she had last seen. She had prepared herself for a woman just as damaged as she was. She hadn't thought too much about what she would do after facing off with Madeleine. Perhaps deep down she had always assumed that she wasn't going to make it out of the confrontation either, and so then it would all be over. But what if she lived? Could she ever actually expect to walk away from this? Could she ever expect to be happy? If Madeleine had found that piece of happiness, and if Sarah had destroyed her chances of ever finding it again with this quest of hers, wouldn't that, in a way, mean Madeleine had won? Again? Sarah felt these thoughts solidify into a hot, burning drill working away at the base of her skull. She bit the inside of her cheek with such intention she tasted blood. A small, hot tear escaped her eye.
"Sarah! Mountain approaching! Sarah? SARAH???" Washington had pushed himself into the back of the copilot seat, his hands covering his face.
"Cold," said Sarah, seeing the mountain large in front of the windshield. "Bored." She pushed down the thrust. The engine roared and the plane picked up speed. "Tired."
The plane had been designed for interplanetary travel. It had been made capable to break into the cold, distant surfaces of planets much further from the sun than ours to take samples and anchor itself. Sarah initiated the landing/subterranean exploration sequence for an alien planet. Two missiles launched into the base of Mt. Rushmore, creating a landing crater. A sharp, spiraling ridge rose from the nose of the craft. The plane crashed into the base of the mountain, it's hard casing breaking through the tough granite with no structural damage. The nose began spinning, digging the ship into the rocky earth. Down, down the ship went. Inside Washington curled into a fetal position on the chair, shaking and moaning. Sarah remained cold and placid. Finally they broke through the mountain and into a large, white observatory room. All around scientists and researchers dropped what they were doing and stared at the ship. Sarah stared back out at them. All these faces. She didn't recognize any of them, yet they all looked familiar. General Cuddle's little brain soldiers. Then Sarah saw what they had been observing. Inside a pit in the center of the room two small children were making their way through an obstacle course filled with explosions, machine gun fire, mines and razor wire. One of the children had an improvised cast on a broken arm fashioned out of the handle of a rattle and a cloth diaper. The color returned to Sarah's face. She looked down to the device on her arm. She pressed a few buttons on the LCD screen. The readout changed from "FLIGHT PROGRAM" to "BATTLE SETTING."
"Washington," she said, her body still twitching and flexing with adjustment.
"Let's kick some ass." Sarah looked down at Washington and winked. Washington smiled and shimmied out of his seat belt.
The door to the aircraft exploded open. In a haze of smoke and light Sarah Montgomery and Washington exited the plane. Sarah was a walking armory, wearing enough firepower to supply a large battalion. Washington wore his tux. It looked damn good.
Sarah took out a large automatic rifle and changed the setting to "strafe." She cleared her throat.
“I stand before you today a woman with self-made superhuman abilities, an adolescent monkey with ADD, a comical amount of weaponry and a grudge. I have come here to kill Madeleine Maby. Make no mistake, gentlemen, I am armed up to my tits and hell comes to anyone who stands in my way.”