The world greeted him with a chitter and a dozen spidery legs prying at his upper body and face. Legs hooked onto teeth, where he had teeth, and onto gums, where the teeth were absent, bottom and top row, prying his jaw open until it cracked and he wasn’t sure it would close again. It shoved its face between the legs, into his face and his mouth, and the texture of it was like wet sandpaper on cold, naked skin.
Its head narrowed, a spear or a wedge, and it tried to force its way into his mouth. Its shell was like scales, oriented so that passage in should be easy, the grit of the sandpaper and the slant of the shells making entry smooth. To go the opposite way was to have the sandpaper texture scrape and the scales catch.
It couldn’t enter, so it withdrew, and it gouged chunks out of him in the process. It thrust in again, and he fought it now. His hand -his only hand- dug for an opening, sliding across scale without finding gaps. It tried to grasp the spider leg, and found it thorny.
His enemy pulled free again, and the slant of the scales resisted, design resisting the effort. Scales caught on some of his only teeth and with the creature’s legs and body straining, pried them loose where they weren’t pried out altogether.
He fumbled, searching for eyes to gouge- and found a smooth, slightly convex surface, that small fingernails couldn’t scratch or find purchase on. He fumbled again, his hand momentarily paralyzed as the creature fought its way forward again and caused him to nearly black out, and found the shoulder of the thing. A mess of cords and tendons beneath a cupping of shell. He tore, dug fingers in, and did what damage he could.
He fought a machine of a thing, all instinct, and it wasn’t a machine that learned. It sought to continue doing what it was doing, but as it fought to open his mouth wide and shove itself within, it tried to use the leg that was now damaged, pulling and throwing its weight to one side. It lurched, lost some of its hold, scrabbled to retake its prior position, and did it again. Each time, it scraped, scales dug, legs scrabbled and scratched, and the part of it that he could damage was only in his reach for a second at most- a second where his vision doubled and everything was slick with moisture and fluids. An acrid, chemical smell flooded his world.
He did enough damage to the shoulder that the limb hung on by a thread. The shoulder was like a knot and the knot came free, so he started digging within. To scrape for something vital, in a chest cavity larger around than his own, to scrape at connecting tissue that held shell plates together, and when that failed, to take handfuls of fluid from where they belonged and drag them out.
He found something that bound an upper half of his enemy to the lower half and held on, twisting and wrenching until it broke. That gave him a chink in the armor that he could consistently use; a gap now ran between head and shoulder, opening and closing like gnashing teeth or two blades as the creature rocked and moved its body, but if he chanced to put his fingers or hands inside he could reach the parts that connected body to head.
His other arm was only a flipper, if it could be called that. Too broad and rounded to be blade, too hard to be a fin, not long enough to be useful. Its scrapes to find purchase on the ground beneath him were what told him that he wasn’t just lying there with a monster perched on top of him, but something monstrous lay beneath, dead, a staring and unmoving eye as large as his head staring up at the sky that was depositing so much of the moisture on the scene.
It took three tries to get at the neck-bundle. The second try saw the two pieces of shell come together and slice at two of his smaller fingers on his hand.
In getting his hand on it and tearing, he killed the monster that had been fighting to get inside of him. He felt it go still, its legs curling up, releasing his ruined mouth.
In the stillness, moisture splashing down around him, he became aware of other movements. His eyes weren’t good, and it was hard to make out more than silhouettes in the dark.
There were ten more of the things he had fought, some twice the size. There were other things. Dead things like the one he laid on. There was no ground, only a sea of hostility and death.
He laid there, aware that his fight was one of several he’d have to engage in. His mouth was open and wouldn’t close and he was glad for it, because it could catch some of that moisture.
Survive, was the imperative.
The imperative gave him the strength to dismantle his attacker further, to work the gap open and to tear what he could free. Already, another hostile thing was scratching idly at the body of the dead thing he laid on. It might have been seeking entry. It might have been seeking him.
Much of his enemy was hollow, the space occupied by fluids that were easily displaced or lost. He tore what he could and worked his way inside, his hard nub of a limb doing some of the work. His head was heavy, and following the imperative meant that he had to stop taking that meager water from the sky and put his head within.
It was not an easy fit, and it was one that took some effort. The roles had been reversed, and it was him that sought ingress. Him that had to retreat, then try again, fight and scrape away.
He worked most of himself within the shelled carapace, then stopped to rest. He couldn’t close his mouth, but with his reaching tongue pressing things to the roof of his mouth, he could suckle and pressure. Dangling bits of meat provided moisture, sustenance.
The world of scales and moisture around him shuddered, and he flipped over, fluids spilling into the cavity he occupied, then quickly draining out. They tasted as before, chemical, acrid, filling his nose and coating the back of his throat with the smell, leaving his head pounding.
He’d been buried. Ensconced within a borrowed shell, he couldn’t see the black-gray expanse of sky overhead anymore- only writhing and struggling scale, plant life, and the occasional twitching limb.
He gathered his strength. Time passed, and he remained alert for the scraping of the things like the one that had attacked him. Now and again they prodded and crawled through the forest of living matter, but they didn’t bother him while he was shelled.
The world turned upside-down again. Not to add more, but to separate. There was more noise as they were separated further, and with blurry eyes, he watched while a massive figure brought a weapon down, severing the head of a living, writhing thing. The action injured the shelled thing that had taken up residence inside, and the weapon killed that.
Through the gap, he watched as other shelled things made their way closer to the monstrous figure. He watched as the figure stepped on the shelled thing, killing it, then killed another with the weapon- a blade on a pole.
It wasn’t that the figures were large, he realized, but that he was small. They were covered in protection like he was, but it was made to fit their form, covering every part of them while moving easily. His protection limited him as much as it walled off the outside world. This was their world.
Small meant vulnerable. Vulnerable meant that it was best to stay quiet. Quiet while they killed. Quiet when they struck him with the blade, not to kill, but to move.
The dead life and plants were put separate from the living, and the living was steadily killed or taken away. He’d been taken from the dangerous writhing jungle to a dead one, of shells and smooth, cold scale.
The dead weren’t to be left alone. Off to the side, a great light burned and consumed, fed regularly with plant life, and it reduced the dead to odors and tastes that made him salivate, before reducing them to char that made his face wrinkle.
He waited, watched, and listened to them communicate in grunting and sibilant sounds. When the great light illuminated the transparent coverings in front of their heads, he could see their faces, see how those sounds were huffed out and mashed into shapes with lips like his own mangled lips, with teeth that were intact, and with tongues like the one that he used to suckle.
Survive, the imperative demanded.
He played dead, limiting himself to suckling for moisture and then chewing when he felt like he could move his jaw enough. He watched, saw the pattern, and when he judged he’d waited as long as he could before that blade found its way under him and turned him into a blackness that made others drool, when he judged the way was clear, he pried himself free and crawled his way into the darkness, where plants pressed in on him from every direction.
“You don’t remember anything before your trigger?” Rain asked. The guy was trying to look disarming, but there was scratch that traced the line of his eye socket and turned his lower eyelid black, just swollen enough to make the eye squint in a suspicious way.
The rest of the group was paying attention to him now. Eyes trying to get past the shell he’d erected around himself, see parts of him he wasn’t comfortable revealing. He trusted Ashley’s cold, uninterested look more than he trusted Kenzie’s small smile and wide eyes. He was glad for the eyepatch he wore, because it meant he didn’t see Kenzie staring and studying him.
“Nothing before,” Chris said, shrugging. He wouldn’t tell them about the bonfire, the bugs, the quarantine crew.
“I don’t remember anything either,” Sveta said. She was always quiet, trying to sound gentle and nonthreatening. She said ‘sorry’ a lot, stared at the ground. She went on, “But I dream. I’ve tried to paint it, to take those fragments of dreams and put a puzzle together.”
“Do you dream, Chris?” the therapist asked. Prodded. Pried.
“No,” Chris said. He had nightmares regularly, and even though he considered those ‘dreams’, he wouldn’t share that. It was knowledge that could be used to trace his background.
He saw her scratch words onto the notebook that laid on her lap. She avoided looking at him as she wrote.
“I dream,” Ashley said. “Ms. Yamada told me that dreams may be important to parahumans.”
“Do you keep a dream diary?” Sveta asked.
And the conversation moved on. Chris was aware of the therapist glancing at him more than she glanced at the others. Her pen rested on the page by the note she’d made.
Second imperative: migrate.
Surviving meant eating, and eating gave him the strength to walk instead of crawling. He was growing, and the rate of growth made his entire body hurt.
Eating meat was hard, because it required catching that meat, and eating enough vegetation to keep himself going required constant eating, which conflicted with the second imperative.
It also meant that he had to experiment with eating different things. He’d eaten some shoots last night, and had spent his usual sleeping hours enduring stomach cramps and a forced evacuation of everything he’d eaten and then some. Now he was delirious, thirsty, and having to stop because his stomach was contracting and cramping so badly.
He needed to keep moving, both because it was imperative and because he needed water and there wasn’t any here.
He found himself slowing, taking more breaks. To do otherwise would have meant collapse, but stopping and not reaching water or destination meant death or-
Or nothing. There was no alternative.
Five hundred breaths of walking. Three hundred breaths of sitting, resting.
Then four hundred breaths of walking. Four hundred breaths of sitting, resting.
Two hundred breaths to walk. Six hundred breaths to sit.
All measured out. Forward progress was the only option. The weather was wet and cold and he felt like the warmth in him had died some time ago. The plodding forward was monotonous – he no longer looked for danger or for food. He breathed and he marched. The breaths were even, in and out, and they were his clock.
Fifty breaths of walking- he had to stop, his stomach cramping. He lost count of his breathing while gasping in pain. He imagined it was close to a thousand.
A hundred breaths of walking. A thousand breaths of rest.
A hundred breaths of walking. A thousand breaths of rest. He wanted to rest longer, and he couldn’t let himself.
A hundred breaths of walking, not toward his destination now. His heart hammered in his chest as he took those hundred breaths and the steps that went with them, because he now knew the danger he faced.
He put himself in the most open space he could. Predators would see him here, but if he didn’t choose this location, then the scavengers would get him.
He collapsed, and the exhaustion and pain that ran through him was enough that the feeling of hitting the dirt didn’t even reach his thoughts.
He faded in and out from there. Cold and wet, then cold and dry. Then movement. Covered in a soft wrapping- too soft to be any protection. His half-formed left hand gripped the material.
When he came to again, he felt better. He felt nourished, and he felt rested. There were few aches and pains, no longing for water. He moved the material that covered him aside, and found a distance between the soft material he had been resting on and the ground below.
He landed, and he fell, but he made little noise.
Second imperative: migrate.
They caught him before he could get there. People like the ones that had been killing and burning, but without the coverings that were the same color and material from head to foot. Bigger people.
He struggled and fought, heard their utterances and knew no meaning in it. He saw their kin- a long, long line of people all migrating in their own way. To the wrong place. People with belongings gathered, moving at a crawl, unwary of the hard-shelled things that traveled along hard surfaces, so close to them.
He tried twice more to get where he needed to be, and on the third try, two of the people decided to confine him, imprisoning him in a large shell, with soft material within. This shell moved, and once he saw that it moved in the direction he needed to go, he relaxed. When they stopped he pointed with his fist, insistent. He knew the destination by heart, even though he knew so little else.
A deserted place, of shelters like the tents, only hard stone. Some towered high, others were squat and low.
His destination was down stairs. The grown ones with him tried to stop him, because now they were wary. He fought his way free, and he ran.
Down the stairs. A door, and a panel on the wall. Each bump on the wall produced a note when pressed, and they had to be pressed in the right order. It was imperative.
The door opened, and a world of manufactured concrete stood out before him. There were more metal doors, more panels, but all the doors were open. Shells and guts of metal, crystal-clear containers that housed fluids with things within. Shells meant to be worn, now draped in a covering of gossamer, courtesy of the tiny shelled things that swarmed them.
The grown ones followed, and they looked scared. They picked up their pace, to reach him before he could reach the chamber he needed. They were just in time for the light.
A single light, focused on each of them, blinding, so they all covered their eyes.
When he looked, he saw that the light that shone on him had turned green. The one that shone on them was the red of bodily fluid, of injury and pain.
He didn’t jump when there was a sound like there had been when people had been doing the killing. A sharp cracking sound, as boot came down on blade, severing life.
No blade here- it was a series of narrower things, so fast they were invisible. Both of the grown people collapsed.
He advanced, reaching the destination. His hand mashed the raised markings there, and the markings depressed as the ones on the panel had.
Things lit up, and the face he saw on the other side of the clear glowing panel was of a grown man, teeth crowded toward the front, hair brown and tousled into a mop, eyes wide in a dangerous way. He moved like he was afraid, moving things, putting fluids in things, and making utterances in a quick, nervous way.
What he said didn’t matter.
Migration done. He instinctively knew what he had to do. The scene on the panel continued as he found everything that seemed familiar and made sure it was in place. By the time he was done, the scene was repeating itself. The same sounds, the same movement.
Third imperative: download.
Feelings were just chemicals in the body and the brain. On the glowing panel that showed the repeating sequence of events, he could see some of those chemicals. Running through clear artificial veins, or residing in cases and shells.
Metal tips pressed against his flesh until they pierced through. He turned the segment, and chemicals flowed into his arm. From his arm, they traveled through his body. They were meant to evoke a specific situation, a specific instance.
Something slowly began to shift, his head pounding, and he understood what he was doing. He understood the chemicals and he understood the machinery around him. It came in waves, of increasing clarity.
The memories came after. He could put names to what he was looking at.
He could remember the shape of the the moment he’d ‘triggered’ -the word ‘triggered’ popped into his head amid the stream of memories. And he could remember everything that had come after.
He had a name for the person on the screen, now. A name for himself.
PRT’s second most wanted, 2003. Seventh most wanted if counting international threats. He’d fought the PRT’s headliner team three times. One win, two draws- he’d lost both those times, technically, but he’d gotten away, and he counted that as a draw.
Then they’d caught him, found him mid-experiment. He’d been a prisoner in a regular prison, until they’d grown lax.
Then the Birdcage. Baumann Parahuman Containment Center. Seven years of cameras and eyes watching his every move while he was contained. He could imagine the fingers tapping on the glass. Dragon handled the announcements, but he could imagine the other staff watching. No one woman could do all of the watching. A hundred eyes…
The memories were overwriting and overshadowing the creature he’d been, that had fought so fiercely and wrapped itself in the shell of one of Breed’s spawn. He’d been dredged up along with them while, presumably, people had been looking for heroes in the wreckage after everything had gone wrong at the oil rig.
He reached out to touch the screen, feeling a kind of dread. He didn’t want to be that. Him. Himself. He’d spent a long, long time not wanting to be himself, but now it was imperative.
As if responding to that thought, the man in the recording turned to face the screen, still talking, chattering.
“You lied to the group.”
Chris slumped back in his seat, staring at the therapist with his best ‘are you for real’ face.
“About a lot of things,” she added.
“You said I needed to do this. You didn’t say how.”
“How are you doing this, then? I’d love some insight on your approach.”
“I’m protecting myself.”
“I guessed that was the case. Can you elaborate?”
He let out a long, belabored sigh. People were so much more trouble than they were worth.
“Name a statement, anything I said, and I’ll explain why.”
“It can be used to track me. If they know where I came from, then they know who and what I am. That matters to people.”
“You think certain people hold grudges?”
“I think certain populations hold grudges. Riley Grace Davis, imprisoned and made to do work for your organization-”
“I’m not affiliated with them.”
Chris snorted. “Whatever. Tom Moss? Dead. They didn’t put much effort into investigating that one. Ricario D’Alleva, imprisoned. Akemi whatshername? Imprisoned.”
“She seems reasonably free and happy by all reports I’ve seen.”
“Led around like a dog, watched constantly.”
“That strikes me as the kind of thing that you’re very conscious of. Being watched, observed, manipulated.”
“Eh,” he said. “If you haven’t picked up on that already, you don’t deserve your credentials. Jamie Rinke, imprisoned. Meadows? Dead. I can’t even remember which of the other Slaughterhouse or Class-S threats are alive still, but for most it’s because they’ve been dead or imprisoned for so long that we’ve mostly forgotten about them. Which is my point.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re all over the place here.”
“I mind,” Chris said, frowning. He’d let himself get agitated. “And I’m in one place. These are the dangerous ones. The ones they wanted to get rid of but couldn’t. The lovely Ms. Webb? Imprisoned-”
He saw her open her mouth, and quickly added, “-until released by Benjamin Terrell. Who is public enemy number one, and I would guess is either going to die before the year is out or live to be two hundred.”
“Fair assertion. He has a lot of resources at his disposal.”
“Speaking of? Your Valkyrie? Ms. Ciara? Imprisoned.”
“You have a very loose definition of ‘imprisoned’, Chris.”
“Dog, leash. Monitored, fretted over, limited in what she can do. If they could have done better in locking her down I think they would have.”
“She’s free and she’s helping. I think most have earned and are exercising their second chances, Chris, and she’s more evidence for my belief than evidence against. Why are you so fixated on this?”
“It’s too dangerous to tell the truth! Even if they forgave my past, they won’t overlook my potential. Tinkers get kidnapped. So I say I’m a Changer.”
“Because it makes sense. I can sell it. I can fake it. And because changers are second to last on the good ol’ PRT priority list. Everything else being equal, changers get left alone while the thinkers and masters get gunned down first, tinkers are probably next in line if they can’t be disarmed, and then you get rid of the bog-standard break-shit types. Changers come after all of that.”
“Which is why you lied about that,” she said, and he saw her take her note as she said it. A mark on the paper, something to keep track of. A continuing study of him.
“Survival is always going to be my first priority,” he said. “The way I see it, half of the parahumans out there are doing it wrong. They aren’t protecting themselves. They aren’t making the right moves. They aren’t optimizing, and optimizing has to start with staying alive and keeping from being exploited. Which they are all really fucking bad at.”
“I have many patients who I wish were still alive right now. I wouldn’t put it in quite those words, but… it’s a scary world.”
“It is, and those patients were idiots. Your current sitting-in-a-circle ring of patients that you made me sit with? Idiots.”
She seemed exasperated now. “We’re all doing our best. Did you get anything at all out of the group session?”
“If you put a little bit more of yourself out there, then maybe you’d get more out of it.”
“I told them enough. What did I say? Tinker got me, experiments, abuse, fucking asshole kept me for a while.”
“You didn’t mention that the tinker was you, Chris.”
“Would’ve kind of given away the show, don’t you think?” he asked, as sarcastic as he could manage.
“I get the impression that when you came here, you were irritated,” the therapist said. “You were already plotting how you would tell me you didn’t want to attend. Yes?”
“Yes,” he said. He smirked. “I like the word plotting. Fitting.”
“Can I negotiate with you?”
“Keep attending, and-”
“Because I think there’s value in it. I think if you give it time, it’ll be easier to talk and to share.”
He snorted again. “You think that’s going to help?”
“With therapy? Careful guidance and attention? Yes. I believe that. But you have to want it.”
He reached into his pocket to pull out his phone. Not nearly enough time had passed.
“Agree to this, and I’ll talk to the institution. They can relax the disciplinary measures for your outbursts, give you access to your things, and give you the freedom to visit your workshop. Provided, of course, that you keep it safe, sane, and sensible.”
His fingers drummed on the phone screen.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“I don’t need the institution.”
“You’re a young teenager with nowhere to live.”
“I’m a thirty-two year old man in a body that was meant to grow fast, not well.”
“It’s not quite that defined, Chris. You seem to enjoy that it’s not defined, because if I approach you as a juvenile, you claim you’re a man. If I approach you as if you were a man, you retreat to being the teenager. Petulant, sarcastic, immature-”
“So flattering,” he said.
“And clever, independent, with varied interests. A far cry from the person described in the write-up for Lab Rat. A distinct, natural personality of its own.”
“We could debate it all session. Oh wait! We have! Multiple times!”
“By your choice. I think you like that you resist labeling as one or the other. A circular argument is safe ground to retreat to when you don’t want to discuss other things.”
He shook his head.
“When the institution isn’t upset with you, it’s not such a bad place to be, is it?”
“Noisy, chaotic, tons of test subjec- kids running around.”
“It has food, power, televisions, running water, internet-”
“There are amenities. I know your supervisors have remarked that you had fun playing video games with peers.”
Supervisors. He felt a frustration well inside him. People that tapped on the glass, peered in. That thought they knew him.
“They are the furthest thing from being my peers. I outclass them in every way. They suck at the games, they can barely spell…”
“You had fun,” the therapist said, firm, like there was no room for disagreement. “It’s easier, isn’t it?”
“…I definitely don’t need the group.”
“I picked members for the circle because you have common focuses. I can see you perk up whenever tinker-related talk comes up. Rain, Kenzie. I know there are parallels between yourself and Ashley, that you aren’t the originals.”
“She’s a legitimate clone. My predecessor got creative.”
“There are parallels, aren’t there? If you talked to her about your dreams and she talked to you about hers, I think you could teach each other something about what’s going on and what you’re going through.”
“I’m still not going to share. Weighing the values, I get more out of keeping it secret than sharing.”
“And the side effects of your transformations, and your insistence on transforming yourself? Is that optimizing too?”
He shook his head. No snort, no laugh, no dismissal. In a way, it was as grave a thing as talking about a family member dying.
Not that one more family member dying would have been such a bad thing in his case.
“That stuff’s for fun,” he told her.
The therapist offered no immediate response to that. But her pen marked it down. He wondered if she was doing that on purpose, to let him know she knew.
Cortisol, epinephrines, and noradrenaline flooded into his arm along with a mess of acetylcholines.
Third imperative: Download.
Every two to three days, depending on how long he could hold out, he ‘downloaded’. Powers and agents, as the literature called them, had a way of connecting better to the hosts when the host was in alignment with the moment they triggered. It was at this time that the agent performed its deepest study of the host, the context around the host, and all necessary things relating to the power.
With a specific feeling derived from a specific balance of neurotransmitters that he pumped into his system, his brain hooked up to a machine to read the various levels, he replicated the feelings of one specific length of time, then the moment that it all came to a head.
A slow ramp up- his finger adjusted the switch, slowly sliding it across the dusty, cracked terminal. He watched the cortisol levels rise, felt them rise. Stress.
He could visualize the scene clearly now. It was the most intact of his memories. He had been forbidden from entering his sister’s office, which had once been his dad’s workshop. He’d entered. He’d seen. A few seconds of horror, which had sent him spiraling into self-destruction. Bed wetting, smearing feces on the walls of the school bathroom, and picking fights without realizing why. Anything to feel like he could make the world make tangible sense again. Anything to get the image out of his head.
A teenage guy, lying on a table. She’d removed the gag and the guy had managed a brief yelp before the plastic covered his mouth- part of a hose and tube assembly, connected to a canister. The contents of the canister had been released, and they’d vented out explosively- so explosively that it erupted from the teenager’s nose, a thick foam.
He’d snorted, failing to get enough foam out to breathe. He’d struggled, his back arching with the force of his desperate attempt to pull arm from restraint. The arms had been injured, marked. There were cuts with blue ink smeared into them and onto the skin around them. His eyes had rolled back into his skull-
And the boy that would become Lab Rat had fled, feet stomping because he hadn’t thought to be quiet. His sister didn’t follow or make any mention of what had happened.
He had broken down. He had tried and failed to make sense of a scene that made none. He had had nightmare after nightmare and he had sat with his brother and sister at the dining room table, eating the meal his sister had made and trying not to think about that scene and the role she had played in it.
Years later, he summoned the courage to tell his sister he knew. He’d expected to find some strength in it, to disarm her. Something. All he had achieved was to allow her to be less careful about what she did, on those days she found a hitchhiker or homeless kid willing to follow her to her home.
He couldn’t tell anyone, because he was already the delinquent by that point. She was the angel, the twenty-one year old who had taken custody of her two kid brothers, who put up with him when he’d acted out so much after their parents had died.
He adjusted dials. More cortisol. Heavy noradrenaline. The moment of panic, the culmination-
The memories. Everything had flowed from that point, and everything that had followed was now clearer.
Every two to three days, he inserted the needles, and he hit the switches. Imperative. Half of the rest of the day was spent both reeling and trapping small animals so the requisite hormones and neurotransmitters could be harvested. Rats, ironically.
It was sheer ego, helped along by the panic of a very limited timespan, that had made the original demand this kind of adherence. If there was going to be a legacy or an emergency out, then he needed to ensure that the process was repeated until the memories and personality were as close to real as possible. Except they never could be.
So long as the imperative held, he couldn’t stray far from this bunker.
Chemicals. He gathered what he could.
Six minutes to rig an extraction gun.
Ten minutes to extract from every animal in the shelter. His hand was heavy on the top of the cat’s head. The machine pumped at the back of its skull, extracting. It died in bliss, which was better than most would get, the way this was going.
The inter-dimensional door opened nearby, and wind whistled in. He made a face.
“You’re working so small,” String Theory taunted him.
With more force than necessary, he plugged his machine into another cat. The machine bucked as it kicked in, nearly throwing the cat from the table.
“You’re not working at all. We barely have time.”
“They found a way to give us time. Time manipulators have been allotted to each of us. If we can give a convincing elevator pitch.”
“Our reputations should be pitch enough,” he rasped the words. In the lead-up to everyone getting out of the Birdcage, he’d spent far too long talking and negotiating, smoothing tensions and ensuring that if there was any hassle, it wouldn’t come from his block.
So long as he was a rat in someone else’s maze, he’d give them what they wanted and he’d get his cheese.
After… was after. He just had to get there. He had to get through the next day.
“What are you making?” String Theory asked, sticking her head between his elbow and his body.
He dug his elbow into her back, hard, and she squirmed her way out.
“Let me be your rubber duck,” she said.
“Shouldn’t you be building something impractically large?”
“I set my servos to build. Tools in motion, engines heating up. I’ll go back in… two minutes and thirty one seconds. But I clearly need to make fun of you before then. What can you even do with that?”
He had no plans. Or rather, he had a hundred. He’d spent seven years thinking about what he would do when he had a chance, a real chance that didn’t use food byproducts and what he extracted when he performed procedures on his cell block inmates. The mentally ill, the suffering. Take from one, give to another, level out serotonin, reduce aggressive urges. Now and then their parahuman overseer would get upset at him for building up too much of a collection, demanding he dump it. Until then, he had some freedom.
He kept a cell block of people quiet, when they were of types who had no reason to be quiet, and in exchange, they left him alone six days out of seven. Another of the seven days was reserved for dealing with disputes and talking to other block leaders.
Now he was out, all of those notes in his head, and with a hundred ideas to pick from, he had no ideas.
Not that he’d tell this grinning runt of a woman.
“Better seen than heard.”
She smirked, and it was a really punchable smirk. She slouched and rather than straighten up to smile at him, she twisted her head so her chin craned up, looking up at him with overlarge glasses and a forced smile on her face.
Somehow more irritating than if she’d been looking down at him. Not that he would punch that punchable face. Maybe in the right situation, he could do something more creative. Take the right formula, the right form, and claw that face off.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “Before I go… a bet.”
“Which of us makes the biggest difference?”
“What are the stakes?” he asked.
“Existing,” she said. Her watch beeped, and she turned around. “Take me back to my lab.”
He watched her saunter off, through the portal that opened. He could see the scale of what she was building, saw her turn to smirk at him in the moment before the portal closed.
He was left in the animal shelter, the lights dark.
This wouldn’t do.
He was thinking small and he hated that she was right almost as much as he hated her guts in general. Yet however much he hated her and however much she claimed to detest him, they ended up together, over and over again.
This- it had been her saying goodbye.
Couldn’t think small. Couldn’t let the runt win.
“Give me a portal in the ceiling… someplace bright.”
The portal opened. A square of light that illuminated the interior of the shelter. Animals shuffled in cages and kennels, their cries overlapping.
“So that worked,” he said, his voice a quiet rasp. “Give me a portal to… where the confiscated PRT tech ends up.”
The door opened.
He smiled. “Stakes are bad enough you’re not even going to say no?”
It would be a start.
Ensuring he had the last laugh would be the next part of it.
It meant surviving.
It was instinct and preprogramming that forced his hand, that made the routine of the procedure something that he could stall but not stop. No more than he could stop from sleeping.
Needle in, dials adjusted, fluids loaded.
Replicating a feeling, then experiencing everything that had flowed from that point. The him that he’d been, small and stupid as it was, had been him.
Elephants were scared of rodents, or so the story went. Dogs ate cats, cats ate rats, and rats scared the elephants that terrified everyone.
He knew he was put together weird, as though none of the pieces of his body fit with the other. If anybody had ever really liked him, his little brother excepted, then they’d never let him know… and his little brother wasn’t around anymore. The last victim of the so-called ‘angel’, his sister.
Now he was alone. For a moment, there were only the eyes that watched him, waiting for him to ask for a portal.
He put on his coat, he gathered his crate and a backpack, both full of injectors, the housings procured by way of a portal to a medical supply company, and he grabbed the ball. His emergency out, quickly cobbled together.
“Portal… to where the fighters who won’t be fighting at this next battlefield are.”
The doorway opened. There were people gathered. Some would be friends and allies of the people who were fighting front and center in a matter of minutes.
Quickly, he handed them out. No time for explanations, and he knew he was untrustworthy enough by reputation and look that explanations wouldn’t help much. If they wanted one, they could take one.
He’d get as many out as he could. Maybe one would matter. Maybe all of them would.
A rat could scare an elephant. A thousand rats could kill one.
Heroes, villains. Some stared at him. He’d never taken off his Birdcage sweats, only put stuff on over it.
“What is it?” someone asked. A girl in a gray horned mask with slanted eyes, a scarf, and a black bodysuit.
His voice was still a bit of a rasp. “Wear it. It activates when you’re hurt. Maybe keeps you in the fight. Makes you strong in a desperate moment.”
The girl tossed the small box up in the air, then caught it. “Okay.”
He handed others to people nearby.
“Can I have one for my dog?” one of them asked.
He looked at the ‘dog’. Grown large, monstrous, clearly some kind of growth effect in play.
He would have liked to study it. He would have liked to see the interaction. Would it fizzle?
It stirred up his tinker brain, and he had to suppress it. He’d had some experience in suppressing those thoughts, in all his time in the Birdcage.
“Go nuts,” he said.
“Then I want some for other dogs.”
He pushed a handful into her hands. She nodded, satisfied, and began putting them into the pockets of her baggy jacket.
He considered his next move, who he should approach next, thought twice, and dropped the crate. “Find someone to hand these out. I should be there.”
“You’re going huh?” the girl in the gray mask asked. “You don’t need your badge things?”
“Injectors. And this bag is full,” he said. He patted the backpack. “Give me a portal. Last stand.”
The portal opened. He could see the oil rig, and everyone assembled there.
So many strangers, and he didn’t necessarily like the people who weren’t strangers.
“Look after the people there,” the girl with the thing about dogs said.
“That’s the intention.”
That got him a nod.
He was greeted by a man in power armor he couldn’t place by name. Quizzed. Then he was handed an assortment of other things to hand out with the injectors.
String Theory, too, greeted him at the door.
“I’ve got you beat,” she said.
“A thousand rats can kill an elephant,” he said.
“What are you even talking about? Did you snort something, to help you get through this? I wouldn’t blame you. I know you’re a coward at heart.”
His voice rasped, “That’s rich, coming from the runt of a woman who keeps her location secret and hides from the authorities while her weapons do the work remotely. I know you’re not very bright, but put the pieces together. It’s not a one man show.”
“One woman,” String Theory said. She looked around. “Sad, that Lustrum isn’t in earshot for that. It would have got me points with her.”
“You’re so far into the negatives with her that it doesn’t matter. We have eighty people with powers here. Think for once. I aim to multiply that power, or at least keep it in play.”
“You’re underestimating how big my gun is. We’re not rats, you know. We’re ants. Little winged insects, buzzing around him.”
He handed out devices to the people who were taking the opportunity to file into the portal to the oil rig. Armbands, earbuds, and injectors.
“My plan, my approach, it acknowledges that we’re ants. The trick is to realize that because we’re ants, we can operate like termites. We bring the building down, and we can kill your elephant. All it takes is the right timing.”
“Termites aren’t ants,” he said.
“Same family, Rat.”
He shook his head slowly.
“When you’re dying, Rat, die knowing I win our bet. I made a knockout punch, you made knick-knacks.”
He gave her a pat on the head as he passed her. He knew she hated it.
Onto the platform, where things were mercifully quiet.
He handed out the armbands and earbuds as well as the injectors. He wove his way through the crowd.
A girl with a bug costume. Tinted lenses. Either symbolic, given the recent conversation, or the universe mocking him.
He drew the equipment from his bag, then hesitated. Something more fitting. A bug in a box for the girl with the bug costume. Maybe she would be more comfortable that way.
It pressed on him. The need to return to memories, refining them to perfection when the agent in his head would never provide a perfectly clear image. He knew from those memories that he’d intentionally designed the system so he could only break the loop when he was ‘himself’ enough to figure out an escape.
Until then, a kind of torture.
He had other projects in the works, cobbled together from pieces of confiscated PRT tech in this emergency bunker. As he succumbed to the imperative, dropping what he was doing to head to the station, to inject the needle and set up the emotional state that put him closest to his agent, he left a burner on. A chemical burned.
Cortisol steadily cranked up, and his knowledge of what was coming made the stress worse. Even the limiters that were supposed to adapt the incoming dosage to his current stress levels weren’t doing a lot to help.
He was mainlining stress while watching bubbles rise to the surface with an increasing intensity.
The glass detonated, and the contents sprayed across the room. It aerosolized, and he inhaled it.
The drug found its way into his system. His cells multiplied, and they multiplied with a design in mind. Other DNA took over his DNA, and with the change, the tinker knowledge dropped away.
He’d needed to make himself strong, and he’d needed to make himself angry. Angry enough that it overrode the lesser imperatives. Not so angry that it overrode the first imperative.
Muscles expanded, and skin stretched. His hands became more like hooves as the fingers cloyed together. His face, too, changed.
With fists, he destroyed. His face was a blunt object as much as his hands were, and his body was simply muscle, and a vehicle for allowing him to smash.
Computer screens, the looped recordings. Terminals. Armor that he’d repurposed to scan body parts. He destroyed, changed further as he drew in breath, panting, and destroyed more.
It was meditative, even freeing.
It was even more freeing as the effect faded, roughly twenty minutes in. He gradually took his juvenile form again. The machine was broken, the equipment lost, and even with his memories mostly intact, he’d had no idea if the imperative would still be in effect. Would he be forced to build and rebuild endlessly?
He felt for it, and he felt nothing. The only feeling was the pain from the spots all across his body where glass had dug in. The change had helped to heal, but only partially.
Maybe when he was looking for artistic inspiration, he would do something similar to this form. No need to tie things down, but if he was going to pretend to be a changer, it would be best to appear like someone who didn’t have all of the choices in the world.
Slowly, steadily, he packed up his things. Then he set out on his journey to find where people had escaped to, if there were even any left.
I win, he finally allowed himself the thought. He walked past the bodies of the couple that had taken it on themselves to see if the naked, malnourished boy that they’d found had any people he was so insistently trying to return to. In the time he’d been here, the bodies had dried up.
Already, instincts were kicking in. Another imperative. He was much happier with this one.
Imperative four: Take action, and whatever it is we do, it needs to be big.
He found her crying.
Amelia Claire Lavere. Marquis’ daughter. Victoria’s sister.
The Rinke creation sprung to its feet as he drew near, prowling with long legs and a sleek, long body. It brandished a box-cutter at him.
“Lab Rat,” Amelia said. She sat up straight and wiped at her eyes. “You followed me?”
Already, he was changing back. He’d timed his arrival, done one circuit around the area.
“Come. Let me touch you,” she said, trying to sound steely and failing. She was still very close to returning to sobs.
He allowed it. He approached. The Rinke creation leaped onto his leg, then up to his long neck, where it held the box cutter at an area where the blood pumped hardest.
The hand was warm, with his scaled body soaked with the freezing rain.
He’d called this piece of work ‘Fleeting Memory’. Fast, thus the fleeting, and Memory because it reminded him of the time he’d been born. Not reborn as Lab Rat- he’d told the others about that. But when he’d been birthed onto a bed of scales and Breed’s bugs, dredged from the water beneath the oil rig. This body was spindly legs and sleek writhing scale, holding the vague profile of a very narrow wolf.
Memory, too, because scent was tied to memory, and this form was a very good tracker. Less good in the rain, but… good.
Amelia helped him transform faster, and as she did, she removed the compulsion that Goddess had laid on him. As he lost his humanity, he wrapped the cloth sash around himself, concealing his manhood. A length of it went over his head, to keep the rain off. It didn’t really help.
As he fixed the position of everything, he adjusted the boxes that were tucked into pockets.
“How did you know it was me?” he asked.
“Your power doesn’t work through hair.”
“Not well. But that body didn’t have hair. Besides, you resemble him. You’re not him, though.”
“What have you done to yourself?” she asked.
He was very aware of the distinction. It wasn’t ‘what did he do to you’, referring to his creator. It was what he had done to himself.
She was sharp. Stupid, so very stupid when it came to some things. But sharp in some things.
“I’ll let you in on that secret, if you let me ask you a few questions after,” he said.
“I’m not in a mood for riddles, Lab Rat.”
“They think I’m fighting to keep my humanity, while changes wreak havoc on me.”
“They being Victoria?”
“What’s the truth?”
“I can’t be rid of it soon enough,” he said. “Every change pulls me further away from being this.”
“To become what?”
He reached into one of the pockets in the sash. He’d told the others that he needed to carry equipment and drugs with him, in case his body started going to pieces.
“This,” he held up a syringe, “Is Brooding Anger. I scanned Nursery during the Fallen fight. It would be interesting.”
She put out a finger. He extruded a droplet, let it rest on her fingertip.
She shook it off, then wiped her finger on her clothes.
Fucking rude. Still… bigger things.
“Maybe another,” he said. He smiled. “Maybe they’ll all get a turn. I’ve collected a few, lurking near powerful capes.”
“What do you even want, Lab Rat? I’m kind of- I’m dealing with shit.”
“You had a face to face with her, finally? Despite everyone telling you that you shouldn’t?”
“I don’t understand it. Or- I understand, I think. I just don’t want to think about it at all.”
“I could give you something. You could be mindless for a while. Peaceful.”
She shook her head. “I should feel like shit. I just wish…”
Her face crumpled up. She looked away, burying her face in a sleeve that draped over one gloved hand.
He looked away too. Rainwater was streaming down, and it was cold.
He’d dealt with worse. Lab Rat hadn’t, but he had.
“I told you something I never told that team,” he said. “You said you’d answer my questions.”
“You thought you had an answer. You’d help Goddess, she’d take power, you’d keep her from being a despot somehow, and as for Victoria…”
“Don’t. No commentary.”
“You thought she’d be so glad to be rid of you that she’d forgive you?”
“Goddess can’t lead. She’s too dangerous. She’s missing necessary tools because she never had to go through the hardship to acquire them. Survival. Having to work to get somewhere. Having to learn things the hard way.”
“That ship has sailed, Lab Rat,” Amelia said. “If she doesn’t take power, it’s going to be because someone worse beat her. Teacher is in the running.”
“You said you’d answer my questions,” he said.
“I didn’t say anything like that.”
He shifted position, irritated.
“What questions?” she asked. She looked tired and resigned, and even in the gloom her eyes were visibly red.
“Shin has a manufactured slave class, doesn’t it?”
“She has a servant who can make armies. Nothing behind the eyes, nothing between the ears. They follow simple orders and they can use weapons. Yes?”
“You want an army?”
“No,” he said.
Test subjects, not an army.
He saw the suspicion in her eyes. Her hands clasped each other now. She worked by touch- touching her hands together was alike another man resting his hand on the hilt of the knife he had holstered at his belt. A security thing.
“Would you fight me?” he asked her. “Would your father?”
“What are you doing, Lab Rat? What do you want?”
“All I want is for you to do nothing. She senses danger. I’m… perpetual danger for her. But she wants to keep me close. She likes me. She thinks she’s safe because she can beat me. I’m just a changer.”
“And when I take the form of Twisted Betrayal…” he said. He drew a syringe from the case, and he held it out, producing a droplet. She removed her glove to touch it once again. “It’ll be a sightly different formula to the one she thinks she can handle.”
“And all you want is for me to do nothing?”
“Do it and I’ll fix this. I will give you Victoria however you want her. If you want to talk, I’ll get you there. If you want to keep her forever-”
Amelia shook her head.
“-I can get you there,” he said, lowering his voice.
“I just want answers. I need to think about what I’ll do for her.”
“I can give you answers,” he said. The thirteen year old was gone for the time being. “All I need…”
He repeated himself to lull her in. He’d had to do it with the more vulnerable members of his cell block.
“Is nothing?” she asked.
“And if Goddess can’t rule Earth Shin, then you let me help you and your father.”
“And give you slaves?”
“And you want to be a monster? And how is it you’re going to get Victoria-”
Her voice rose slightly as she talked, and she shook her head, as if the ‘no’ was already there and she was fighting her way to get to it.
“Amelia,” he interrupted, and his voice was rougher. “Do you want me to act, here? Don’t overthink it. Do you want someone to step in?”
Again, the hands touched. Insecure.
“I know where the last member of her cluster is. I found her before I found you. We had a chat.”
“Like the one you just had with me?”
“Don’t overthink it,” he said. “Don’t signal anything to her. Just… work with me. Accept what comes and don’t get in the way. Do you want me to give you something, so you seem less dangerous to her?”
“Can I trust what you give me? I know some of what you’ve done.”
“If I hurt you, your father will have my head. I’m eliminating problems, not creating them.”
Hands clasped together in front of her, she nodded.