I woke up in a room, with lights all around, very spooky. It was brighter than I'm used to, living in the dark my whole life. There was a fellow sitting across from me. He was smoking an e-cigarette, and he breathed a real odd taste into my face. Cheesecake? I should have been mad, I usually am when I'm kidnapped, or when I'm inhaling stuff that's bad for me. But that sedative they hit me with just made me think about how much I hate Cheesecake. He saw I was awake, turned off his little pipe, looked at me.
"I'm sure that you're not too happy being here."
"Just unhappy you're the first face I've seen in days."
"But we're accomodating you while you're here."
"Do you need anything? What would a four foot tall lizard eat or drink?"
"I'm an amphibian."
"That's debatable. Anyway, do you want anything? Or do you have some other requirements utterly alien to me?"
I started laughing.
"Human flesh, maybe something like that?"
He wasn't amused.
"Listen pal, do I look like I have a spaceship? Just something with all of the major food groups except dairy would be great. I'm intolerant."
He turned to me.
"You don't seem to be surprised."
"Oh, you insult my intelligence. I was well aware of the risk. I do this sort of thing all the time. I don't know if you watch the news, but I'm all over it. And the suits kind of gave it away. You want to know the irony? Me and all my monster buddies, instead of monsters for boogeymen, what we really fear are the men in black. The governments that want to experiment."
"You're not in a government facility, thank Christ. If you were I might have no chance of protecting you at all. You're quite lucky, Mr. . . ."
"I'm not giving you a name, jabroni."
"I don't expect you to. Not that it would change things. It's not like you're on any federal listings. No, I'm looking at this."
He held up a paper.
"It's your profile from the little battle our group extracted you from. They've given you a codename."
"I hope it's circa the mid 1400's."
"Your name is Redband."
"Like a commercial with swearing? I'll work with it, Otto von Shrink."
He had a German accent, I had no intention of imitating it.
"I'm sure you're aware of why you're here. We want to learn about you. They'd like to start cutting, and that sort of thing, but I know you have more to offer than that. Your secrets might be attained without . . . let's call it displeasure. Would you mind explaining things?"
"What is there to explain? Some origin story about a vat of toxic waste? I'm sorry, bud, but I was only a baby when whatever happened happened, and I don't know how human memories work, but I certainly can't remember squat."
"It's hard for me to convince them not to dissect you, or zap your brain, or whatever ghastly and inhumane things they do to your kind, but I think there's potential in your brain aside from the meat of it. I'd really like to know what you've been doing your whole life. Where you've been, what you've seen."
"Where do I start?"
"Why not just tell me how your week's been so far? What led you here? To this moment."
"Okay, well I'm a little angry about these handcuffs."
"I'll see about getting them removed, but if you're angry, you can start there."
"I try. I try to calm down. I try to . . . Well, the point is it doesn't work. I fold my legs, I close my eyes, I do the hands?"
"You're talking about meditation?"
"Yeah. But my breathing speeds up and my chest feels full and empty at the same time, and I just start ODing on anger. On the, you know, futility of it all. I'm not calming down, I know I'm not. I just can't never seem to shake off the burning migraines I get when I'm ticked off."
"So you'd consider yourself to have anger issues, just like any relatively normal person?"
"Sure, I guess. And I fumble around for my inhaler."
He started jotting down quickly on a note pad. Honestly, he looked up at me any time I said something of interest to him.
"Yeah, sure write down inhaler. I have one. Green, ugly, blah, blah, temper, blah, blah, blah, inhaler. Back to my anger. I'm doing that sort of tap all of the pockets thing looking for it, but it can't be found, and then I really start to flip. My brother says they're called panic attacks, and I wouldn't normally trust him, but I think he's right."
"Brother, noted. What do you mean? He's right in what way?"
"I ain't been the same since I scrapped with this yellow giant when I was a kid. Another weird creature like me, this guy. He tore me apart. Especially my lungs. I cough, and wheeze. I guess I don't know, but my immune system was shot to hell. I get sick easy, I get tired easy, I get a lot of things. Being little, and being weak, it just makes me so . . . Anyway, I see red. And not through this little piece of cloth, either. Through--and it's hard for me to say this, but I don't know you so I will. Through tears, a lot of the time. I don't like being pent up, surrounded by cold, concrete walls, and disgusting smells, and all things familiar. I want to go through what everybody else goes through."
He was writing furiously.
"Certain things help calm me down. Hurting people helps, but I need to always make sure they're the right people. And when things are dirty I get frustrated, so I clean a lot of the time. I garden, sounds weird coming from me, but I do. And I play video games sometimes, but a lot of the time that just makes it worse. I worry that the first thing, you know, the hurting people. I worry that . . . Like I said, I try to make sure they're the right people. I just worry that. Well, I worry that they're not."
He held up his hand to stop me.
"Sounds to me like you're more normal than you think you are. You have a family, a home, emotions, anxieties, health concerns, interests, hobbies, preferences, and the drive for normalcy. It sounds odd, but the plainest people tend to worry they aren't plain enough. They want to be better than they are. But the self is just something you have to improve upon one decision at a time. Take me for example, I have a vision of myself, you know a version in my head who acts in a way I only wish I could. And I have to try to be that person a little more every day. Listen, despite what the men who apprehended you may want to believe, it seems like you're a regular Joe, not some disgusting creature to be feared or reviled. But it's almost as if the person who is having the most trouble seeing that is you, not them."
"Yeah, you may be right. Thanks for that. I've never spoken to a person out in the light who hasn't called me a freak and ran away."
"Have you heard of the Reconstruction? It came after The Civil War."
"Captain America 3? My brother just torrented it. It's a great movie. The best one so far. When does Reconstruction come out?"
"No, the American Civil War. It was a war between the North and the South to free the slaves. And it's said that many of those slaves, once they were freed, had been told they were worthless for so long, that they believed it, and they went right back to work for the men that once kept them as property. My point is that maybe you have heard from the supposedly normal people that you're a Frankenstein. And maybe you've even heard it from your family."
"You're not wrong there."
"So you've begun believing you are less than you really are. You honestly impress me, though. I've seen many fantastical creatures pass through these cells, and many of them have their lives ruined by these changes. And if not, they find grace in ruining the lives of others. Only those weak enough to succumb to the allure of superiority are monsters. And even your anger does not control you. You are aware of it, you fear it, you try to exorcise it from your mind. Each time, you fail, but even in the midst of it, you focus on defending the innocent. You transformed your power into a force for good. Whether it's successful remains to be seen, but you at least show restraint. Monsters aren't found in repulsive visages, but rather in repulsive deeds."
At this point, it seemed apparent that Otto's hope to spare my life was sincere, so I decided I'd tell him a little story. I sighed.
"I'll tell you what I can, but I can't make any guarantees that what I say will interest you, or your organization."
"I understand. And I hope you understand what happens if it doesn't."
"Yeah, well if I'm going to die after this conversation, I might as well prolong it. But I'm not giving up the names or positions of any of my associates."
"We already know about several, but that's not what we're currently interested in."
"Currently. Sure. I'd get mad again, but I guess my only chance of saving them would be to comply, so I'll continue. I have three brothers, and a father. No mom, but we have some other friends. It's a de facto setup, but we're family to eachother. There's a big yellow guy who lives near us, probably a result of the same actions that led to us. We don't like him very much, you can guess why."
"He gave you that?"
"Indeed he did, professor. And he don't like us neither, mostly because he ain't too bright. He's more animilistic than us, you know, territorial and that. But my dad had a wonderful idea, which was to use him and his keen senses to teach us how to hide, because our place is a little short on food, so we had to venture out sometimes. The yellow guy's territory is off limits unless dad says so, because of the . . . let's call it an incident. My dad always insists that the whole stealth thing is a necessity for our survival. But I get restless, and sometimes I go out when I'm not supposed to."
"Does this relax you?"
"Like I said, the change of pace makes things exciting. My oldest brother is a man of finely tuned scruples, he thinks we should use our strength and our training for good, you know. But for me, it's all catharsis. So this was one of those times. I was out, looking for some people to beat up. Bad people, obviously. I have to wear human clothing to disguise myself, and I just sit on a rooftop or down an alley and I wait for somebody to scream. I have pretty good hearing, you know. We all do. I think I was just sitting laying on a water tower reading Atlas Shrugged with a flashlight when . . ."
"Atlas Shrugged? That's a big book."
"Listen, my younger brother might say The Art of War is philosophical, but it's just chock full of villanous one-liners from some action movie. I prefer the harder stuff. I like a challenge. So I was milling about, and I heard a shout. But I dropped down, and the people shouting were gangsters. Purple Dragons. You might have heard of them. They practically run Jersey. There were about five of them, and they were all squirming in the mud, and there was this guy I've bumped into before. He had an arsenal that looked like it came from a god damn sporting goods store. Hockey mask, golf bag, baseball bat, all kinds of stuff. This guy is like me. He does this because he likes to. It feels good for him. But he's killed a few of these dudes before, and I didn't want that to happen. I heard him yell something about arugala."
"He sounds unstable."
"He didn't know he killed them. He doesn't know how strong he is. But I do, and I needed to keep him from doing it again. I dropped down behind him, and used my dagger to cut the strap on his golf bag. All the bats and clubs spilled onto the ground. He looked down, and while he was distracted, I took off my bandana and tied it around his mask and head to cover his eyes. Then I kicked him in the back, and sent his jaw into the dust. He was not totally happy. He was groaning with the rest of his victims. I helped a couple of them up, and told them to go home. They went, and one of them threatened him by name as they limped off."
"He doesn't like that name very much. He prefers Casey. Anyway, he and I wound up fighting a little. Same old stuff, he tells me they deserve it, I say they might, but living people ask a lot of questions about dead ones. He says he don't care, I say he should. He says who am I, I say some mysterious nonsense. He tells me my skin is wrapped in bandages, I say I have a condition. He asks if it's a condition that makes me beat people up like him, and I say yeah. I tell him it's the rage. Then we go back to his garage. He has a nice whip there. Some souped up muscle car. Mad Max kind of a thing. He orders some Chinese, we eat it. We talk."
"Hip hop, mostly."
"You like hip hop?"
"Yeah, hardcore gangster rap?"
"Very loud. Songs about desperation, by people who know it all too well. People can say it's not as philosophical as Ayn Rand, but she only knew her field."
"You continue to surprise me."
"Have you ever been to New York before?"
"You're not in New York anymore, Redband."
"So . . . where?"
"Now I'm surprised. Well, eventually, the guy asks if I want to go back out, and I say yes. We go find some guys, I make sure he knows that when I tell him to stop I mean it, because he ain't good at holding back, and we start up again. This time, we're together. We have a weird . . . I don't know, a synergy. We mess it up, though. I get shot in the leg. It was a lucky shot, you know. I was in the shadows, but the guy made a good guess. Casey finished up, and he tried to carry me. But I weigh a lot."
"Yes, that's something I noticed. Do you find it hard hiding? Being fast? Considering your bright skin and large mass?"
"No, I'm pretty resilient. I've fallen real far before, and I've been fine. I can lift a decent amount. It's not like I can just swing a shipping container back and forth like it was nothing, but I'm stronger than most humans. And if you ever look into a shadowy veil at night, there's all kinds of stuff in there that's bright in the day time. It don't matter. I heal quick to too, but it still takes a while."
"I just asked him to help me to my home. We stumbled a few blocks to an abandoned building, and I told him not to follow me any further. I told him there were deadly creatures that might kill him if he did. And then I went in to the building. There is a basement in this place that connects to an old tunnel, and I use that to go home."
"New York is a city built on top of older bits of city. People think that stuff like that doesn't really exist, but they're mistaken."
"Preaching to the choir. I had to move around quietly, it was a little hard. This particular entrance opened up right to the yellow guy's region. We call him Leatherhead, by the way. He knows what I smell like, and he knows blood even better. I had to wait for an opening. Lucky for me, these walking bear traps were strolling by. You know those little metal chickens that the mayor got put in?"
"You're talking about those automated sewer waste disposal drones?"
"Yeah, the build-a-better-mousetrap thing."
"I think they're called MOnovisual Unmanned SEwage Repositories. MOUSERs."
"Well, they don't like my family too much. They attack us pretty often. But Leatherhead likes them even less. If they come anywhere close to him, he will go berserk. And when he's distracted, I can make my move. It took about twenty minutes before they were in a position I could use, because I had to wrap my wounds up. Anyway, I got past them, and I headed home. I got out of Leatherhead's area, but a swarm of those Mousers cut me off. I had to take a turn I didn't want to, because if you mess with those robots in any big way, they will self-destruct."
"That doesn't sound safe."
"No, it don't. And it ain't. I tell you, they don't come as advertised. Well, I had been running for a long time, but my leg wound began to hurt. I was headed for another guy who's really territorial. A bit of a whacko. He's a little fargone, you know. He's unpredictable. He's a foe one day, and a friend the next. But I'd rather be in his territory than Leatherhead's, or Hob's."
"Hob? Old Hob? What do you know about Hob?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Is this the information you really want?"
"We've been searching for Hob for a long time."
"I'd bet you are. You're an organization you said?"
"Would that organization be the Technolgocial Contribution Research Institute, by any chance?"
"I, uh . . ."
I had him figured out.
"Well, anyway, I traded passage through this guy's territory for a body of one of those Mouser robots to get back to my family. Then, my dad got mad at me, so did my younger brother, and then I got mad at myself again, ran off, again, got into a fight, again, and you guys interrupted. The end. You showed me your hand, bud."
"What do you mean?"
"I know what you want with me. You want to know where Old Hob, and his men are. You're getting involved with gangs just to find some animal people?"
"They're sufficiently valuable to us."
"An industrial espionage arms race between TCRI and Null Group to weaponize mutants for profit. I'm guessing the EPF has been making things really hard for you."
"I wouldn't know, I'm just a psychologist. But if you start threatening and withholding, I'm not sure they're going to be very happy about it."
"Yeah, I haven't been happy this whole time."
"Listen, I'm trying to save your life. Maybe even your whole family."
Suddenly, the lights dropped, and an alarm started blaring. Red emergency lights turned on, and started flashing. I used the distraction to break my restraints without any resistance. I stood up, and grabbed Otto.
"Where are they keeping my equipment?"
"The lockers, two floors down."
"Great. And can we get out of here?"
"No, and they're going to start filling the chamber with gas."
"Not if I have anything to say about it. I can see in the dark, you know. I was raised in it."
I grabbed the chair and I started smashing it into the glass window. A man came on the intercom and told me to stop, or they would electrify the floor, but I broke the window before that happened, and the three people on the other side fell to the ground. I hopped out, and made sure they were all unharmed. Then I took the gun that I saw the guard holding. It was an odd looking thing.
I ran out and looked around for a map. The first guard I saw, I shot him with the gun. I could tell it was non-lethal by its design, but it didn't shock him. It was like he had been hit with a hard gust of wind. He flew back about fifteen feet and hit the ground. I ran over to him, and asked him where the stairs were. He pointed, and I knocked him out. I ran for them. the alarms kept wailing, the intercom kept warning me not to continue, but then it cut out.
Right when I found the stairs, I heard a familiar voice, but I couldn't hear it. I assumed it was my brother hacking into the security feed. I looked at the nearest camera and motioned with my hands over my ears to indicate I couldn't hear. The alarms stopped, and the lights went back up. I went down two floors, and heard him talking. It was my brother, Don. I was right. They were here for me.
"It's taken a month to find you."
A month, I thought. It can't have been that long. It seemed like only a few days. I guess they had kept me asleep for longer, done some experiments on me. Shouldn't have taken them a month, though. Probably just my vitals and things like that, but they couldn't figure out what none of it meant because they ain't never seen one of me before. And it would have taken it a month for them to find me if we were really in Vermont. I found a series of lockers, and started breaking them open until I found my gear. I put it all on as fast as I could, took a breath out my inhaler, and then, I spoke. There were an oddly high number of mice and rats in the room, but I thought nothing of it.
"Don, can you hear me?"
"Cut the lights."
And they were cut. I was in perfect shape. I had been in the room for several minutes, so there were a lot of guys in the area, waiting for me to make a move. I had the upperhand in the dark, though. I heard one of them mention night vision to the rest. Night vision has a weakness though. Light. I waited about ten seconds, and shouted.
"Lights back on."
They were all blinded. They'd be out for like thirty seconds, so I made a break for it. If they had night vision, there was no point in having the lights off. Stealth is possible in the light, it's just different. And Don has augmented all of our techniques with different tools. For instance, I have this disk that I can throw onto the ground, and it makes a hologram of myself. The hologram even makes noises. I acted out several different short scripts, and it can do any of those. I set the hologram to the surrender setting, and I put it down in one hallway, where I know a lot of guys are coming from, but they all run past in terror of something behind them I don't stick around to see what it is, but I guess it's a mutant like me taking the opportunity to escape.
I would head back to the stairs I used before, but there's too many men, and possibly mutants. I eventually find a map showing that I'm still on the third floor. But there's a window nearby, and looking out, I see that there's a building across the alleyway. I decide to tell Don.
"I found an out. I'm heading to the next building over."
I break the glass with the wind gun, and I jump across to the fire escape. I climb to the top of the neighboring building, and I change into my human outfit. I'm wearing a trench coat, a fedora, jeans, gloves, shades, boots and bandages are covering my face. I have all my equipment in a backpack. I look like a film noir detective that got into a fight, but other than that, I look normal. I find a door that's thankfully unlocked, and I head down into what looks like a ceramic mug factory. I find an elevator and I head to the first floor, where I leave without trouble.
Several years ago, we found an old armored truck that got scrapped and sent to the junk yard. Don and I fixed it up, and now we use it to move around above ground. I just had to look for it, and my brothers opened the back doors, and helped me climb in. I saw two of my brothers, Don, of course, and Mike. And I was surprised to find Old Hob sitting there with them.
"What the shell is he doing here?" I asked.
"He's here helping us find you guys," said Mike.
"Us guys?" My heart sunk.
"Yeah, Leo is still in there. We thought you must have had him," Mike urged.
"I had no idea," I got light headed, and took a breath out my inhaler. "We need to go back and get him."
"No, it's okay. We all brought some friends," Old Hob whispered.
"Who?" I was confused.
"Mondo," said Mike.
"The King," said Hob.
"Nobody," said Don.
The door opened again, and Leo was being carried by three figures. Two of them, I knew. Mondo was a friend of Mike's. They hang out together all the time. The King was the whacko I mentioned earlier. He mostly sits around on a throne of old tires playing his flute, but he is subject to fits of coherence, and I'm guessing this could be loosely considered one of those. The other guy was covered in the deepest black shadow I had ever seen. He almost seemed to be made of the stuff. He didn't make any noise, or say anything. They all got into the truck, and suddenly things seemed a little more cramped. We all crowded around Leo. Don asked us to give him some space, but we couldn't manage much. The truck started moving. I realized somebody must be driving, so I moved to the front. I saw an empty passenger side seat, and I closed the door behind me. It was much quieter up here. And my pal Casey was driving.
"Hey, so it looks like you weren't lying when you said you had a family."
"Yeah, well my dad ain't here."
"You met him?"
"Apparently, if it's an emergency, your dad forgets all about the sneaking around. We just put this team together on the fly, and hit a major facility."
"You don't think it's weird, him being a rat?"
"I see it all the time on TV. Why should I choose to be surprised now?"
"Yeah, but this ain't no cartoon . . . Ah, I don't get it."
"I see humans on TV, then I see them in real life. I see cat men and rat men on The Island of Dr. Moreau, and then I see them in real life too. What's not to get?"
"I don't know. Never mind. Are we really in Vermont?"
"Burlingon, the biggest city in the state. Got an uncle here."
"I'm a turtle you know, not a rat."
"Yeah. Your dad's a rat."
"that don't confuse you neither?"
"My mom's a girl, my daughter's a girl. But I'm a boy. It's the same as that."
"It ain't. I mean, it really ain't even close."
"Well, agree to disagree."
"Who is that guy back there?"
"Which one? They're your friends."
"No, but that guy wearing black, I've never met him before, ever."
"He's making us call him Nobody. He's kind of a spooky fellow. He takes things really seriously. I think Don said he's another vigilante. Like me and you."
"How come we ain't seen him before?"
"Maybe he doesn't want to be seen."
"You think he's a ninja?"
"Don't you wear black when you go out?"
"Yeah, I'm the Nightwatcher."
"Cool name. But I went through all the newspapers of the last three months, and none of the heroic shadowy figures were doing things you did. They were all doing other things."
"So you're saying I'm not in the news, like I thought I was? It's all him. You're saying he's stealing my glory?"
"I'm saying he's good."
"Yeah, I guess he is."