Down Amongst The Animals
Peter slouched in the back seat of the car, watching the trees rush by in a thick verdant blur. He clenched his eyes shut, breathing in slow, shallow bursts. Moira looked at the boy through the rear view mirror, trying not to chuckle.
The boy only mumbled something.
“I'm not used to cars. Nobody drives in New York, and I usually move a lot faster than this just swinging around.”
Peter hit the power window, letting some cool air rush into the rental. Moira and Max had been strangely secretive the last few days, and the most Peter heard from either was when he had first arrived at the motel room; Moira had some issues with the three of them sharing the same cramped room, but Max had explained that until they had an actual base to operate from, the motel would have to do. Peter hadn't seen anyone turn the shades of purple Moira had.
In the four days since Peter's rescue from the church, where the forces of SHIELD and the Fantastic Four had cornered him, he had come to learn very little about his saviour, Max Eisenhart. During the time in the motel room, Max had mostly been out. Peter had asked Moira – her last name was Kinross, as it turned out, and she was a geneticist from Scotland, a fact that delighted Peter to no end – about Max' absences, only to be told that there was still a lot of work left to do before any more exotics could be saved. That was yesterday, and aside from a single phone call, which Moira handled, Peter hadn't heard a peep from his saviour.
“Where exactly are we?” Peter inquired from the back seat.
Moira flicked her gaze momentarily to the rear view, then back to the road.
“Essex County. You ever been here before?”
Peter stared at the forested expanse speeding past him. “No. Didn't they shoot a slasher flick here? Looks like the kind of place for that, all those trees...probably a haunted cabin somewhere in all that wood.”
Moira chuckled, “You don't honestly believe in ghosts, do you? A young man of your scientific aptitude?”
Peter shrugged. “Nah, but I never believed in super powers either, and look how that turned out. For all I know, ghosts are real and everything.”
Moira laughed, and Peter sank into the seat, his face flushing with embarrassment.
Peter stared out the window, letting the wind play in his hair, and it wasn't until they had passed a gas station some twenty minutes later that he spoke up again.
“Okay, so....where are we headed? And where's Max, shouldn't he be here?”
“Max knows where we're going, he'll meet up with us. He has something to take care of first; so for the next few days, Peter, it'll be just you and me.”
Peter muttered under his breath, “oh joy,” thinking Moira couldn't hear. She smirked as she pressed down on the gas pedal with her foot, making the youth in the back seat groan as his stomach quailed.
“And did you pack your own luggage, sir?”
Max rolled his eyes at the TSA officer's question. “Yes, and the bag hasn't left my sight, nor do I have any produce or foodstuffs to declare, nor flora, nor fauna, nor anything else of that variety.”
The officer hummed as she checked off the list, “Mm-hmm...and do you submit to a Trask test?”
Max frowned, “No, I'm Anglican.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Anglican?”
“Your name is Max Eisenhart.”
“And you're Anglican?”
“A lot of German Anglicans, are there?”
“A few thousand, I should think. It's not just for the English, you know. I have a Statement of Religious Belief, if you need to see it.”
The officer thought for a second, then waved Max through the gate, shaking her head. Max let himself breathe once he was seated on the plane. Moira was right that he might need to invoke a religious exemption to avoid a Trask test, and it had worked, even if he hadn't needed to use his forged papers to back up his claim. To be honest, he doubted Moira's skills as a forger, so he was relieved not to have to use the fake Statement, but it was a small mercy; he knew he'd have to get a more reliable excuse to avoid a Trask test in the future, if this pet project of his was to have any hope of succeeding.
He sat back in his seat, closing his eyes as the other passengers were seated. He barely paid attention as the stewardess ran through safety procedures, and contemplated going to sleep, but forced himself to stay awake instead; he pulled a small notepad from his carry-on bag, and flipped through it. Moira had taken the time to fill a few pages with basic information on Max' target. He struggled to read her small handwriting, making out a few words here and there, and inferring what he couldn't make sense of from context alone. A lot of the information was contradictory – the subject had fought in Korea, or in the Pacific Theatre, or at the Plains of Abraham; he was American, he was Scottish, he was Japanese...nothing was concrete, just a lot of speculation and half-assed puzzling it out.
And on top of that, there was no guarantee this man would agree to join Max. This whole trip, the danger he had put himself in, might all be for nothing.
Well, I've come this far, Charles, he thought, as he turned the next page, may as well go all the way.
Peter got out of the car, falling to his knees as the world swam around him. He sucked in the cool air, feeling it burn his lungs. Moira walked around the car, up the gravel path from the road, looking back at him as the colour returned to his cheeks.
“Oh don't be so melodramatic, Peter, it wasn't that bad a drive.”
Peter climbed to his feet, choking back his urge to wretch, and lifted his head. The car was parked just at the base of a hill, a few steps outside a rusted iron gate hinged to a beige stone wall. A weathered and faded sign bolted to the wall read, “ Cedar Lake Sanitarium.”
“I don't...what is this, Ma'am? Why are we here?”
Moira fished a key from her jacket pocket, and unlocked the gate with a reluctant, metallic groan.
“Peter, you can call me Moira. Or Doctor Kinross. 'Ma'am' is just so....old.”
She led the way up the stone path, overgrown with weeds and moss, to the dilapidated structure ahead.
“And this is our new home.”
Peter stared up at the four-storey behemoth. It looked like something out of a horror movie, with it's weathered brickwork faded by decades of disuse, it's windows boarded up and the gardens overgrown and wild. There were what looked like scorch marks on much of the masonry, and garbage tossed about the property.
Peter shook his head, “Oh you have to be kidding. How....in what bizarre alternate universe is this anythings home?”
Moira smirked at the boy and unlocked the massive padlock on the front door. The doors clicked and whined in protest, but opened without much resistance.
“Well, not as it is, no. But with a little work, it'll be up and running in no time. We'll get it in shape while Max is away.”
Moira led Peter into the hospital. He squinted as his eyes adapted from the bright sunlight to the oppressive gloom, wrinkling his nose at the smell of dust and age. If the outside was a horror movie, the inside was it's sequel, where the deaths were more clever, the gore more abundant, and not even the heroine from the first was guaranteed to make it to the end.
He stepped tentatively over a few discarded shards of glass and wood. The halls were empty, and the silence set the hairs on the back of his neck on end, motes of dust whirling in the idle breeze.
“Um...no, this is not happening. This is not a home, this is where the psycho with the chainsaw and the ensemble made from cheerleaders kicks up his feet when he's not rage-murdering everybody.”
Moira chuckled, “Oh come on now, Peter, it can't be that bad. Come on, let's see what's upstairs.”
Peter opened his mouth to protest, when Moira gave him the look. He knew it well, his Aunt May had perfected it to a science, and he knew that it meant the end of the discussion. He nodded sheepishly, and followed Moira upstairs.
The second floor was marginally better than the ground floor. It was mostly bedrooms, although only a few of them had anything remotely resembling a bed, or a bed frame, or the long torn up or scorched remains of a mattress.
The place had been picked clean by scavengers over the years, the filing cabinets emptied out, the pharmacy having been raided, it's wares traded for discarded beer bottles and signs of youthful rebellion. Piles of cigarette butts, condom wrappers, and cans of spray paint told a story of wild abandon, one that Peter had wished he had never learned. Moira had found a janitor's closet, and half a broom. Peter rubbed his scalp, thinking.
“Hey, Ma'a—Dr. Kinross,why don't we just hire some people to do this? Wouldn't a crew get it done faster than just the two of us?”
Moira stood in the hall, one hand on her hip. “Why yes, Peter, let's leave a paper trail right to our secret base of operations. And maybe after, we can paint the words, “Captain America stinks, exotics inside, please bomb here” on the roof?”
Peter slunk down, having no argument to her logic.
“Now, come on. I found a lock I can't open, and I think your muscle power will come in handy.”
And so for the next two hours, Peter broke open the odd locked door, hurled rusted bed frames out windows, and managed to clean a good chunk of the top three floors. He stood around, admiring the cleaner floors and the lemon scent in the air, when Moira appeared behind him, passing by in a rush for the front door.
“Peter, I just got a call from the real estate company, there was some issue with the paper work. Can you finish up here while I go sort this all out? I'll be back in a little while, it's just some snafu with the zoning, I think.”
Peter leaned on his broom, a bit confused. “Eh...you're coming back, right?”
“Yeah, I'm coming back. Max would solidify my blood and pull it out my nose if I just abandoned you here. Well, maybe not, but I still wouldn't do it either way. You'll be fine, just finish up here, and I should be done in an hour. I think there's a radio somewhere around here, if it gets too quiet for you.”
Before Peter could open his mouth to speak, Moira Kinross was out the door and driving down the road, and he was all alone in an abandoned sanitarium. After a second of standing there slack jawed at Moira's sudden abandonment, a chill ran down Peter's spine, and he went off in search of that radio.
He eventually found it in the kitchen, a room he hadn't yet managed to get to. It was on top of the fridge, which from the smell of things still had what was once actual food inside. Peter refused to go near the stinking wretched ice box, instead pulling the radio to him with a quick flick of his wrist, a thin line of webbing yanking it off the dusty appliance. He popped open the back of the radio, finding three batteries where four should have been, and tossed the radio into the nearest bin, a solid forty feet away, in an overhand throw that would have made the most seasoned NBA player jealous. Peter winced as the radio exploded like a gunshot, then did a double take, confused. The radio was intact – in the bin, but whole. But he knew he had heard something, some sort of explosion. He leapt over the tables in his path to the bin, looking in at the radio in bewilderment; nothing, maybe a bit bent, the speakers blown out, the batteries tossed to the bottom, but nothing that would have made the sound he had heard.
He ducked down as a second sound rang out. It was further away now, and outside, but it was unmistakable. In a flash, Peter, ran to the hall, finding a window overlooking the property from behind. The sun was low in the sky, painting the heavens orange, and the hills gave way to expanses of trees.
A third clap of thunder rang out, and Peter saw a plume of smoke erupt from the trees behind the property. Before he understood what was happening, Peter effortlessly pulled the window up and open, and vaulted out onto the overgrown weeds, sprinting into the woods like a shot.
Her feet hurt so badly, her lungs burning cold with exhaustion. She wanted to stop, to be back home with her mom and her dog and not running for her life. There were too many trees, and she had cut her forehead on a branch a while back. She wanted to stop, but the sounds of running footsteps behind her served as a warning: stop, and die. Something snagged on her foot, and she fell forward into a clumsy roll, smashing her head into the ground as she tumbled into the trunk of a tree. Her world was bright lights and pain, and in the foggy distance of her perceptions, she heard twigs crack under weight, she heard voices mumble strange and hateful things loudly. And she heard the shotgun cock.
Peter bounced from branch to branch, sidling against the canopy at alarming speed through the treetops. He stopped only when he saw them – four grown men in hunting gear, armed with shotguns, and a small girl in a tattered yellow dress. Peter looked at the girl as she raised her head, her eyes blurry and unfocused. Her skin was a dusty mauve colour, her eyes large and silver. He positioned himself above the men, as one of them raised his shotgun to her. God, he thought, they're going to kill a kid! The hell?
“Damned mutie trash, you think you can come around here and scare our kids? Fuckin' freak, gonna show you things where your kind belongs!”
The girl struggled to stand, but didn't even make it to her knees before she fell to tears.
“Pwease, mister, I didn't do nothin'! I'm sowwy, pwease don't huwt me!”
The man with the gun was unmoved, his finger tensing on the trigger.
A thin line of silver fell on the barrel of the gun, bringing it up hard and fast into it's owner's face just as it fired upwards. The heated barrel burned his flesh, the cartilage in his nose crunching with a wet, violent sound. He dropped the gun in pain, his pals turning to see the brown-haired teenager dangling upside down from the trees by a glistening silvery wire.
“If I were in my usual idiot-stomping uniform, I'd make a “rabbit season/duck season” joke. But seeing as you good ol' boys are setting to blast a toddler in the face because she's pink, I think I'll drop the humour and just introduce you guys to my favourite bone in the human body, the clavicle.”
The thin boy flipped off the wire to the ground, his foot catching the nearest hick in the chest just below the neck, a sharp snap ringing out, followed by a breathy scream. His three pals barely had time to turn to their injured friend, when the boy lunged at the one with the shattered nose, shoulder tackling him into the tree like a shot from a cannon. He slumped to the ground like a sack of potatoes, and the lithe figure crossed his arms, fingers making the 'metal horns' sign; silver threads shot from his wrists, covering the faces of the final two men, and with a yank of his arms, the two men were pulled hard into each other, their faces colliding and knocking both men out cold.
Peter took the guns laying on the ground, and with both hands, bent the barrels into a crumpled metal rainbow, pinching them off. He turned to the little girl, whimpering in the dirt, and bent to comfort her.
Peter's words were drowned out as he tried to put his hand on the girl's shoulder. Her scream pierced the air, and Peter felt cold needles press into his skin right up to the bone; the world lost all colour and he swore that for a split second, he could smell damp soil and taste the back of his own head. Everything went dark, and the world was silent, save for the girl's screech. Peter stumbled back, falling onto his butt into a puddle of water. The metallic sting of the girl's voice faded into a numb buzzing, and light slowly returned to Peter's vision, not that what he saw made much sense. Somehow the forest behind the hospital had faded into shadow, being replaced with a cavern of dusty, dry brick. His head swam as he tried to make sense of what had just happened, when he heard muffled voices, close by but hard to make out. A part of his brain thought they rather sounded like the grown ups on a Charlie Brown special, just a muted trombone going 'wah-wah' with every word. He squinted in the dim light, making out vague forms and shadows and figures. A small one pointed to Peter, and a second blur, a large one – no, a VERY large one – stepped forward, rising up before the dazed teen like a beast from the deep.
And Peter Parker knew only darkness.
Max held his coat shut as the wind hit him from behind at full force. He crossed the tarmac as quickly as he could heading towards the charter plane terminal. Inside, a small owl-like man stood behind the counter, his glasses wide and round on his face, his white hair receding from the top of his head. Max looked around, glad to be out of the wind, and shivered the last of the cold out of his body.
The man behind the counter lifted his head as Max stepped in, and smiled dimly.
“Hi there, how y'all doin'? Windy out there, ain't it?”
Max rubbed his arms for warmth, nodding. “Yes, it's a bit drafty about. Cold too.”
“Well that's th' weather fer ya. So, what can I do fer y'all today?”
Max placed his hand on the counter, pulling out his wallet and producing his ID – or rather, one of them. “I called ahead from Vancouver? I asked about a flight to Dease Lake?”
“Oh yeah, that was you, huh? Well, like I tol' ya on th' phone, no airfields up that way. Y'all have ta drive, I'm afraid.”
A skinny girl with her hair in a tousled ponytail and sporting glasses as thick as the old man's appeared from the back office, holding a file in her hand.
“Gramps, what's this shit?”
“Never you mind, Holly, just you take care a' th' paperwork.”
Holly nudges Gramps aside at the counter, to his annoyance, and she smiled sweetly at Max.
“Hi. Sorry about that. Gramps gets...forgetful sometimes. You want to go to Dease Lake, right? Geez, why? There's nothing up there but hillbillies and trees. You looking for a real 'Deliverance' experience, I think they have clubs for that in Vancouver, no need to get on a plane.”
Max smiled at her attempt at humour. “There's an old friend who lives up there, I thought I'd drop in for a surprise visit.”
“Well he'll be surprised, that's for sure; nobody just drops in on Dease. Well, if you want to fly there, you'll have to go to Smithers; they've the only airfield that flies to Dease, Northern Thunderbird Air. We can fly you to Smithers alright, if you want.”
Max smiled, nodding. He was worried for a second there that his trip had been derailed. “Thank you, miss.”
Holly beamed proudly, while Gramps waved her off, retreating to his office and shutting the door, muttering to himself. Holly shrugged, and smiled awkwardly to Max.
“Sorry about Gramps. I don't know what his issue is with Smithers, but we have to push to remind him that we do fly up there. But we can get you up there, no problem. Let me just chart the flight for you. Smithers is easy. Okay, your name?”
Max handed her the fake driver's license. “Erik Lensherr. “
Holly took the card, and typed in the information, and handed Max his ticket. Max paid, in cash, and was directed to a seat to wait for the pilot. He took the seat, thinking about how he was going to convince this man to listen to him. Given what little he knew of the man, he'd have to play it carefully, try not to come on too strong or too cultish. That was Moira's word, cultish.”Do nothing that makes it seem like you're two minutes away from flying him out to Namibia and mixing the Kool-Aid,” she had said. Max pulled out his notebook, opening it to the last page he had open on the plane, and started reading again.
The flight to Smithers was brief and uneventful; the pilot ignored Max, focusing only on flying the plane. Max got the feeling that either the pilot was still inexperienced, and nervous about flying solo, or too experienced, and had become jaded with the passengers, but he supposed it didn't matter one way or the other. The town of Smithers, once Max had landed was surprisingly pleasant. The town itself was nestled in the shadow of the Rockies, and there were shops and venues lining the grid-like streets. He was able to find Northern Thunderbird Air easily enough, and had spoken to one of the pilots about securing a flight to Dease. The pilot's name was Jack Emery, a slight man in his forties, looking all the world like a middle age Tom Selleck in a smaller frame. He seemed amiable enough, although he dispensed with any small talk, listening to Max' story and nodding curtly. Jack had explained to Max – “Mr. Lensherr” - that he only flew to Dease a few times a week, and that the next flight wouldn't be until tomorrow, but there were several motels he could stay the night. Max thought, and asked which one was cheapest.
Peter woke up with a slow slog; his head felt like a hornet's nest wrapped in cotton wadding. He tried to stand, his knees buckling under his body. The room was dark, but there was a ghost of orange light haunting the edges of his vision. He followed what little he could see, until he came to a brick wall, cold and damp and smelling of rot. He felt his way along the wall, his fingers sinking into something soft and giving. It felt like a curtain, the way it submitted to his pushing. He grabbed it, and a knife of pale light cut into the room. He peeked out, looking for any sign of a guard, and saw only an empty corridor, light faintly by burning candles stuck to the walls. Peter nervously slipped away from the curtain, moving silently. He could hear voices not far away, just down the tunnel, and saw a light moving towards him. In a panic, he jumped up, nearly hitting his head on the low ceiling, and twisted his body around, clinging to the damp brickwork. The light grew brighter as the voices drew closer.
Peter hugged himself to the ceiling, holding his breath, making every effort to be invisible, silent, elsewhere. Two figures passed beneath him, one holding the flashlight. Peter turned his head, careful not to shift his weight, and could have sworn that one of them – they were both women, he noted, and not unattractive ones, all things considered – but one of them had six arms, slender and swaying rhythmically. The other one, the one holding the light, had a large bushy tail, and seemed to speak with a cartoonish squeak in her voice.
“So did he say why this one didn't get tossed down a sewer line?”
Six Arms shook her head as the pair of them parted the curtain Peter had just departed, and in only a split second, raced back the other way, shouting for an alarm. Peter quickly crawled along the ceiling,
moving with measured caution so as not to be seen. He clambered along the slick and slimy stone, fitting under (or was it over? He was technically traversing above them) rusted pipes, turning down shadowed corridors and clutching the masonry whenever his skull gave him that lovely buzzing effect it seemed to do so well, to warn him when to hold his breath and silently pray. Where the heck was he? Who were these people? The last thing he remembered...there was pine freshness, and the underscent of bleach, then a scream, gunshots, blood pumping in his ears, everything happening a million times too slow for his liking, and....nothing. Nothing left. Panic had started to set in. The walls echoed with the sounds of calamity and alarm, footsteps and bodies setting off his spider-sense every three seconds, until he could barely hear himself think. He ran his fingers along the ceiling, pulling himself after, heart pounding, mind racing. There were people who needed him, Aunt May, Gwen...no, stupid, that's before. They're gone now. Stupid, how could he have forgotten that?
Suddenly the panic was replaced with a dark gloom. The light seemed to bleed out of Peter's vision, and his thoughts fell like thick rain, focusing on the losses, the pain. His fingers started to loosen, until he fell away from the ceiling. He fell for what seemed to be an eternity, tumbling into nothingness, like he deserved. The cold despair washed through him, saturating every fibre of his being, until he looked forward to his sudden and messy death. He had failed...Ben, May...this was for the best. This way, he couldn't fail anybody else ever again. This way...
Peter's next coherent thought was, Dear god, who put a floor here?
The room exploded into light, some from construction lamps off in the corner, some from the hands, eyes, and heads of the people surrounding him. Peter limply lifted his head, groggy from the fall. His shoulder ached like a mother, but didn't seem broken. Slowly, he forced himself up to his feet, his heavy arms bent at the elbows, fists clenched for a fight, head ringing and spinning. A figure walked forward, and through the haze in Peter's eyes, he could vaguely make out the shape of a young man, thin in the face, with dull glowing yellow eyes. Peter shook his head, confused, and blinked quickly, tears streaming down his face as the despair set in again. He was going to die alone, forgotten, in god knows where, and he deserved it for being the failure he was.
The yellow-eyes figure – Peter could just barely see by the clashing lights that he was pitch black, like an old racist cartoon – spoke up, nodding to someone in the crowd surrounding them.
“Annalee, stop, before he hangs himself or something.”
A small woman in a headscarf, looking for all the world like someone's grandmother from an old Britcom, nodded, and blinked at Peter. The despair melted away, giving rise to a warm wave of euphoria that swept over him. He rocked back and forth on his feet, smiling like a goon, and nearly teetering over. The yellow-eyed man steadied him with a hand to the shoulder, and the lights went up, fully illuminating the room for the first time. Peter looked around, dazed and giddy, and saw...it had to be a hundred people, easily. Only not all of them looked like people. Some looked off, with over grown facial noses, or animal heads, or extra limbs. One was too fat to be real, another looked like a human toad. There was a pterodactyl man, and an alligator woman, a giant rat (Peter hoped to spy four mutant turtles in the crowd, and giggled airily at the thought). Six Arms approached, with Fuzzy Tail behind her, and the rest of the audience followed suit, until Peter could only see a spinning blur of faces, eyes, and then nothing else as he slumped to the ground with a shaking sigh.
It was the voices that stirred Peter awake again. He was...somewhere, white-lit and smelling of old bleach, the scent faded with time. He moved to sit up, only for his arm to tell him what a simply bad idea that was. He rolled his shoulder, and the click in the joint made him wince sharply.
“I sssaid to bring him to me sssafe and sssound, Rita. Not break hisss arm.”
My god, am I listening to a radiator talk?
Peter turned, sticking his knuckle in his teeth to get through the pain in his shoulder, and noticed that he was laying on a hospital bed, a shower curtain covered in tropical fish surrounding him.
With great effort, he forced himself to swing his legs over the side of the bed, moving through the curtain. He stopped when he saw the pterodactyl man speaking with Six Arms, his eyes wide and jaw agape. The pterodactyl man quickly turned his head at the sound of the curtain rustling. Six Arms smiled at him flirtatiously, her two lowest hands firmly on her hips, her other four crossed at her chest.
“Ah the patient'sss awake. Good. Rita, if would, go inform Missster Grimm that our guessst isss alert.”
Six Arms – Rita, Peter corrected himself, he knew her name now – nodded, and strode out of the chamber. Peter looked around, and saw ramshackle devices on the wall, x-ray light boxes and what looked like a cardiogram. This was a doctor's office, he realized. The pterodactyl approached the battered youth, clicking his tongue, a medical light in his clawed hand.
“You gave usss all quite the ssscare, young man, falling from the sssceiling like that. But a remarkable gift, yesss. And durable. A lesssser man would have been killed by that fall, but you sssurvived. Not even a disssslocation, just bruisssesss and ssscrapesss.”
Peter eyed the strange man warily. “Um....thanks, I guess.”
The medical light shone in his eyes. Peter felt oddly calm and at peace, and wanted to cooperate with the doctor at all times. Nothing else mattered but being a good patient. Yesss....
The light shut off, and the pterodactyl man leaned back.
“Sssorry about that. Sssometimesss I can't help it.”
Peter blinked. It felt like a ton of cotton had just been pulled from his head. “Huh?”
“It'sss my eyesss. I'm a hypnotic, you sssee. If I'm not careful, folksss jussst fall into a trancssse around me. I try to keep it under control, but...well, you sssaw. My name, by the way, is Karl. Doctor Karl Lykosss. Eh, with one 'S', it'sss the tongue, you sssee. I literally cannot ssstop hissssing. But enough about me, tell me, do you remember your name?”
Peter blinked. What just happened? His name! Right, he knew his name, it was written on his underwear...no, that was first grade...what year was it? Hang on, he knew this! What was it Flash called him? “Hey, puny--”
“Parker, sir. Peter Parker.”
Doctor Lykos – not 'pterodactyl man' – perked his head up. “Oh, you're the boy who essscaped from thossse huntersss a few daysss ago, aren't you?”
“Um...yes, sir...I think so. I'm sorry, my head's a little fuzzy. Where am I?”
“Well, that....I would....I'm trying to...pick my...vocabulary very carefully, ss- becau—I want to avoid ss-uttering that letter. Even I'm annoyed by the hisss—that sssoun—the...din - I make”
Peter smiled. He nodded, agreeing that the hissing was irritating.
“For now, let me tell you that you are underground, and no harm will come to you. We call our group the Mor....no, that hasss that damned letter in it, too. Have you read “The Time Machine?”
Peter nodded. It was in fifth grade; the other kids were slogging through Beverly Cleary, and he wanted something with more teeth to it, something interesting.
“Well,” Lykos continued, “we take our name from the tribe in the future, that lived underground.”
Peter nodded, “The Morlocks.”
Lykos clapped his hands together. “Correct, my boy. Alright, back to the diagno....making ....coming to the end of our examination.” He thought for a second, picking his words carefully to avoid that dreaded hissing sound. “What...human....am...(dammit, Karl, 'am?') in charge of...the nation....we are in?”
Peter cocked his head. “Wait, are you asking who the President is?”
Dr. Lykos nodded, pleading with his eyes for Peter to not laugh.
“Well, unless I'm in the future...or the past, it's that dillweed Gyrich. Ah....Henry Peter Gyrich.”
The doctor nodded, “Correct. Well, from what I can tell, you don't appear to be sssuff...experien....under the effect of a concus...your brain? Okay!” He punctuated this with an awkward thumbs up and Peter couldn't help but blow a stifled laugh. The doctor stared at him for a bit, then joined in the laughing.
Peter was hoarse with laughter when a figure appeared in the doorway. It took him a second, but eventually Peter was able to recognize his soft yellow eyes. The rest of him was quite unexpected, in the light; slender and slight, perhaps a bit older than Peter himself, with pointed ears and pronounced canine teeth, and a thin layer of velvety fur the colour of midnight. Movement flared behind the stranger, who eyed the two cackling hystericals in exasperation.
“What the devil...oh never mind. The boss wants to see our new guest, Doc. Is he good to go?”
Doctor Lykos wheezed and coughed out the dying embers of his laughter, nodding as he gasped for air.
“Hmmm, he can go, Kurt. I'm all done with him for now.”
The blue youth escorted Peter from the medical bay. Peter was hiccuping for air, finally calming himself down. “So...we're underground, right? The doctor said you called yourselves Morlocks, I guess that's because you're all hiding underground?”
“Not hiding, living. But yeah. We're in some discontinued steam tunnels, somewhere under the Waldorf, we think. We don't really know,because the only way topside is by teleporter.”
Peter stopped in his tracks. “Wait, what? Like in Star Trek?”
The blue kid turned, rolling his eyes. “No, not like in Star Trek. Although Blaquesmith probably could put something like that together, if we had the resources and power supply. I mean, teleporter, like this.”
Peter buckled back as the blue kid exploded into a sulphurous cloud, and disappeared. Peter coughed and waved the stinking fog away, trying to find some fresh air amidst the foul. He jumped out of his skin when a hand clamped on his shoulder, the blue kid walking by, a big grin on his face. “Like that.
We're all exotics here, man. We've got three teleporters. I'm just the weakest one, but at least I don't knock you out for a few days, like Jenny does.”
“Jenny? Wait, days? How many days was I out?”
“Easy. You were out for about ten minutes. I guess you recover faster or something. Being exotic and all, maybe? And Jenny was the girl who brought you here. Pink skin, small for her age, warps space with her screaming. You must have scared her pretty badly.”
Peter thought for a second. “I was trying to help her. There were these guys.”
“We know, she told us everything, once Doc Sauron got her to calm down. Oh, that's what we call Doctor Lykos, by the way, Sauron. Yeah, some of us pick out names for ourselves down here. Sort of a thing to sever our ties to our old lives. Who were you up there?”
Peter stopped for a second. A pack of kids race by; two of the boys, one bubblegum pink, the other dull green, stopped to look at Peter as though he were a curiosity. A girl with a skull like face and large black eyes called after them to follow, and the boys ran off.
“Uh....I was...Peter. My name is Peter. Parker.”
“Ah. The Spider-Man. Yeah, heard of you. That was crap, what that paper did to you, I'm sorry about your aunt.”
“Y-you know about that?”
The blue kid nodded. “Yeah, it's not that hard to get info down here. We have a pipeline. Her name is Miranda, nice lady. Weird hearing, she can only hear things far off away, unless she focuses.”
“Right...um, okay, neat, I guess? What about you, what's your deal?”
They stepped down a side tunnel, carved into stairs by some sort of pristine tool.
“No deal. Or a raw one. I was born looking like this. All blue and fuzzy, the tail, the ears, the toes and fingers...you know I don't have an uvula? That little dangly thing in the back of everyone's throat, I don't have one. Don't even know what it's for, but it must not be important, I've gotten just fine without it.”
He let out a long sigh, his shoulders slumping. “My name was Kurt Wagner. I was raised by a family of Roma, they put me to work in a sort of ramshackle circus. I was an acrobat. Then there was some trouble with my brother, I had to leave, I came to America, and...well, that was a bad idea. They don't tell you in the travel brochures that blue people are illegal in this country.”
Kurt led Peter to the bottom of the stairs, to a large room filled with....well, not much. There was a bookshelf, and a minifridge hooked up to a metal wire dangling from the ceiling, and a cot in the corner that looked like it had been sat on by an elephant, bent in the middle. A chalkboard sat on the wall, with nothing written on it, but several pieces of broken chalk dotted the floor, with piles of white dust nearby each one. There was a sound in the corner, one that reminded Peter of those old mummy movies he and Uncle Ben used to watch on school nights, when Aunt May had an extra shift at the hospital. It was the sound of the mummy pushing the huge rock away from the entrance to his tomb, just before he fell upon the archaeologist's camp to enact his unholy revenge. Stone grinding on stone. He turned his head to find the source of the noise, and nearly tripped over Kurt as he saw a shadow rise up from the gloom of the corners. A match was struck, gliding up to the behemoth's face, lighting a thick cigar clenched between it's teeth. It stepped into the light, and Peter's eyes went wide. It...he? She? IT was enormous, easily ten feet tall and built like a mountain. And built, it seemed, by taking brown-orange shale fragments and piling them into the rough shape of a man.
And then it spoke. Because of course it did, everything spoke. The squirrels spoke, the pterodactyls spoke, naturally big orange rock....THINGS spoke.
“So dis de joik? Kinda puny. Hey, idjit, whaddya starin' at, ain'tcha never seen an astronaut before?”
Peter tried to speak, but could only stammer a few random noises before an echoing guffaw rang through out the tunnels. “Relax, kid, geez! Youse was gonna faint there, wasn't youse?”
Peter finally remembered how his tongue worked, and chuckled lightly.
Alright, big orange thing...doesn't seem so bad, he thought. Probably a mutant like Kurt or the Doc or that Rita lady, nothing to worry about.
“Eh...sorry, I'm having a lot of shocks to the system today. Most...most exotics I've met look...well...normal.”
The orange giant loomed down, pushing his craggy face to Peter's and snorting out an impressive plume of thick, purple-grey smoke. “Whatchoo say? Youse sayin' I ain't normal? Is that what youse' sayin'?”
Suddenly Peter felt all the heat drain from his body. “Um...n-no, it's not...oh boy.”
The giant pulled back to his full height. “Kid, youse gotta learn ta unstress, youse all tense an' stuff. An' yeah, most exotics youse see up in the city look like regular folks, that's how they hide. But down here, we ain't got that good fortune, ya know. I know, it's hard ta believe, dat even a fella wit' my dashin' good looks would have ta hide in th' flamin' sewers! But kids like Kurt an' Jenny, an' the rest a' dese bums, th' world ain't ready fer folks dat different yet.”
The giant sat back down, puffing on his cigar, then groaned out load. “Oy, where are my manners, I'm jawin' yer ear off here, an' we ain't even been intr'doos'd! I'm Ben Grimm, some folks down here call me de T'ing when dey don't think I can hear 'em, but I don't mind none.”
Peter's vague-recollection sense was tingling. He knew that name from somewhere. His mind raced through that mental Rolodex he had amassed. Ben Grimm. Ben Grimm. One 'M', or two?
“Wait a...Captain Benjamin Jacob Grimm, the pilot of the Excelsior?”
Ben chuckled, “Hey, youse heard a' me? Whadda'm I sayin', course youse did! I'm an idol ta millions!”
Peter sat across from Ben excitedly. An astronaut. An honest to god astronaut. And he was talking to Peter. This was every dream he'd ever had since he was five, all in one big craggy package. He felt lightheaded, as giddy as a schoolgirl. His face beamed fanboyish zeal. “I watched the maiden flight on NASA's Explorer channel, I...how are you alive? Nobody could have survived uncontrolled re-entry like that!”
“Uh-boy, dat, kid, is a story. Hey fuzzball!” Ben was now addressing Kurt. “Go find Johnny, I wan' him ta meet da new guy. An'...see what's keepin' dinner, wouldja kindly?” Kurt nodded, and was gone in another sulphurous implosion of space. Ben coughed hoarsely. “Geez, someone needs ta get dat kid an air-freshener. Maybe one a' dem pine trees he can hang on his tail.”
Ben took a deep drag on the cigar, lighting the room with it, then letting the thick, sour smoke roll out of his mouth. He sucked the smoke back in though his nostrils – Peter hadn't even noticed he had a nose, but there it was, a tiny pebble on his face – and snorted it back out, like a cartoon bull facing down the wascally wabbit disguised as a matador.
“Awright kid, here's da t'ing...”
Moira kicked over the box of debris, her hand clutching at her auburn hair.
“Devil take the boy! Stay. PUT! Peter! Dammit, what is he thinking?”
She spun about in a panic. Max is going to be livid if I don't find that damned boy!
Moira paced the floor. There had been no note, at least not that she could see. No signs of struggle, nothing broken, and given what she had heard from Max, Peter didn't seem the kind to let himself be taken without a fight. Moira pulled out her phone, and dialed the number at the bottom of her address book, a number labelled “Aunt Patricia.” Pressing the phone to her ear, she hissed an admonishment to herself, “Stupid bloody woman, I can sequence a mouse genome from memory, but I can't keep track of a fifteen year old boy. What a bloody marvellous mother I would have made, eh Charles?”
The voice came on the other end, airy and harsh. “Night/Wing Investigations, Colleen Wing speaking.”
“Yes, my name is Moira Kinross, is Jessica there?”
“Hold on.” Miss Wing vanished from the call, to be replaced with another voice, this one thick with a Queens accent. “Yeah, this is Jessica Jones. Moira, right?”
Moira sat on a dusty stool she pulled from the corner. “Yes, that's right, you remember me.”
“That accent, and the job you put me on, you're not easy to forget. What can I do for you today?”
She took a deep breath. She wasn't sure Jessica could help at all, but she didn't know who else to turn to. Max had insisted on not having a cell phone – he was paranoid about having a network the Fantastic Four could tap into – so she was left to fend for herself. Jessica Jones was all she had at this point.
“I have a minor emergency, and I need someone with your skills that I can trust. A young man left in my care has gone missing, and I don't know who else to turn to.”
“And I'm guessing you're calling my drunk ass instead of, oh, say, a cop, because he's one of those special cases that seem to haunt my every waking moment, right?”
Moira rubbed her temple in fatigue. “Look, I wouldn't have called you at all, except you have a reputation -”
“About which, as per one Miss Joan Jett, I do not give a damn”
“- For getting results on cases like these.”
“Look, I have a lot of cases right now, and -”
“Miss Jones, we both know that to be the highest codswallop. The only cases you have are full of returnables.”
“Oh, you get to fuck right off right there, lady! You do not get to talk to me like that!”
“Miss Jones, I would rather not antagonize you, really I wouldn't, but this boy has already lost so much recently, and I fear what may become of him if he isn't found quickly.”
There was a stretch of silence, followed by a resigned sigh. “Fine, text me your location, I'll see what I can do. But Moira, this is going on a separate invoice, just so you know.”
The call ended, and Moira sent the hospital's address. Ten seconds after she hit send, the phone rang again, Jessica on the other end.
“Are you fucking nuts? You want me drive where? Lady, that'll take me all day!”
“Nonsense, it's only a few hours drive. If it helps, I'll even triple your usual fee and pay for the gas. Or, you could always fly.”
“Sure, got a broom stick I could borrow? Fine, but this kid had better have beer once we find him, because that is the only thing that would make this trip worth it.”
Moira waited the four and a half hours for Jessica to arrive, and greeted her at the front gate. Jessica had long, straight black hair lovingly tossed into an unbrushed rat's nest, cold grey eyes hiding behind a web of red veins, and a limp, unlit cigarette dangling from her lip. Her face was a testament to the perils of hard living, not that she cared much. He clothes were sagging on her frame, showing that the concept of ironing was still a far-off and as yet unlearned lesson for the private detective. In short, this was a woman who, despite her storied skills, had been firmly ground beneath life's heel, until she simply misplaced all the shits she had to give. She ignored Moira's proffered hand, and strode impatiently up to the main house followed in a ginger clip by Moira herself.
“Alright, Doctor, walk me through this. You and some kid were here, in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere, in this reject from a Vincent Price movie dump, alone. Uh-huh.”
She gave Moira a disdainfully arched eyebrow. Moira puffed herself up defensively.
“It was nothing sordid, Miss Jones, I assure you!”
“Yeah, sure. Lots of women your age take random kids out for long, lonely trips to the countryside. Most of them are schoolteachers, though.”
Moira stared at Jessica, her face turning a most fascinating shade of purple. Jessica turned, hiding her wry smile. “I'm just teasing, Moira. Unclench, hmm? So, tell me about this boy? Exotic, right? What did he do? I mean, what can he do?”
“I'm not entirely sure myself. According to Peter, 'whatever a spider can,' whatever that bloody well means.”
“Parker. The boy in question? According to him, he has the,” Moira swiped at her phone, “'proportionate speed, strength, and agility of a spider,' and some nonsense about 'tingling in his skull'.”
Jessica walked down the hall, bits of plaster and drywall crunching under her feet.
“Right, the spider-kid. Saw that expose. That was bullshit, what that paper did to him. So he's out here, huh?”
“Yes, I had to leave him here to finish some cleaning. There was some paperwork I had to sign. Buying an old hospital isn't an in-and-out affair, you know.”
“Hmm,” was Jessica's non-committal answer. “And were the windows closed when you left?”
“Downstairs? Yes...we didn't need to open them, the place already had a mould-check. Why?”
Jessica stopped at an open window, pointing the the long fingerprints left on the dusty sill. “Because I felt a breeze. Looks like your boy went out the window. Trying to ditch his chores, maybe?”
Moira looked out the window, down the hill and towards the woods.
Jessica awkwardly pulled herself through the window, catching her left foot as she touched down on the grass and dislodging her shoe. Moira picked it up, tossed it out the window at Jessica's feet, and with a deep breath, a grumbling protestation, and squeezed herself through the window frame, falling into the overgrown garden after painfully smacking her ankle on the pane.
“Ow! Bloody hell!”
Jessica stifled a laugh. Moira scowled at her, straightening herself out and wincing lightly as she put pressure on the foot. “Oh stuff it, you smug moo. Let's go, I want to give Mister Peter Bloody Parker a piece of my mind.”
Moira limped down the hill. Jessica had offered to help her down, but Moira's pride wouldn't allow that. No, she had to do this, and when she finally found Peter, she would be giving him sizable chunks of her mind.
The path down the hill got dark quickly. Moira craned her head up, watching the branches over head.
“You expecting him to fly?”
Moira shook her head, “Not fly. Swing. Look for thin silver threads on the branches. That's our trail.”
Jessica looked up, eyebrows arched in confusion. “Okay...silver threads. Why silver threads?”
“Because he's a spider-boy. It's his webbing.”
Jessica wrinkled her nose in disgust, “God, tell me that's not a euphemism for something.”
“Aren't you the woman who once played 'pet the bunny' to a picture of Jim Hammond?”
Jessica bore flaming holes of vengeance and hatred into Moira's skull with her eyes, “That was drunk talk, nothing I say in drunk talk is ever true!”
The pair continued on, until Jessica stopped, holding her hand out to brake Moira.
“Hang on, you smell that?”
Moira sniffed the air. Dank, sunlight, grass...Almost like a forest, she thought sarcastically.
“I smell wood. So what, we're surrounded by trees.”
Jessica shook her head, “No, that's...it's sour. It's old, and it's faded, but sour. Like...sawdust. Burnt sawdust and a medicine-smell.”
Jessica looked up at Moira. “Shit. Someone's been shooting out here.”
The pair looked around, and Moira spotted something in the bushes. Reaching in, she pulled out a rifle, it's barrel bent back and crumpled like tinfoil. Jessica's eyes went wide.
“Holy shit...was that your boy that did that?”
Moira shrugged, nodding blankly, “I did say he was strong.”
Jessica took the gun from Moira, who was already looking around for more signs of Peter. Something against the tree, a shape scorched into the wood, still warm to the touch. Moira traced it with her finger,
starting at the top, and circling down around, to a cleft that took her along a short, slender line, down another curve, and down a half a foot, to a light bend that carried on for another....
What was this?
“Jessica, look at this. Burned into this tree here? What does that look like to you?”
Moira turned over to Jessica, who was busy straightening out the rifle barrel with her bare hands.
“Damn kid's strong. I'm actually putting effort into bending this. What was that, Moira?”
“Pay attention, please! This. This...scorch mark on the tree, it looks like something, don't you think?”
Jessica drops the gun lackadaisically to the forest floor, and moved around Moira to see the scar. She tilted her head, relaxing her eyes and focusing on the centre of the large blemish.
“Looks like a person. A kid. Like, a little kid.”
Moira stood up, scratching her neck. “What the bloody hell happened out here?”
Max lay on the bed, staring at the powder blue ceiling, humming some Gordon Lightfoot song whose name he hadn't caught that he had heard on the radio during the drive down. The Fireweed Motel had been the cheapest bed in Smithers, he had learned, wiping out only eighty dollars a night from his savings. He hoped he had enough to get up to Dease Lake in the morning, and back home before too long, otherwise he might have to dip into the shadow accounts Charles had left. Max rolled over, turned off the light, and closed his eyes. As it turns out, two plane rides in one day can be exhausting, and he still had tomorrow to look forward to.
Sleep came easier to Max than he thought it would. His dreams were haunted, however, by the memories and corpses of those he had failed. Faces of friends and lovers, cast into masks of fear and betrayal, neighbours now enemies. His house was burning, those he had called 'friend' hold the torch, holding him, as the screams of his wife and elder daughter rang out. Ghosts, all of them. He turned away from the ashes, the mouldering spectres of his family, to all he had left – the twins. Wanda, her hair like sunrise, like passion. And Peter, his Peter. So strong, so quick-witted. But wrong. Something cold in his eyes, something...alien. And in a silver blur, it was gone, replaced with burning ruins, scattered bones, a giant skeleton in a wheelchair looming over him, pleading with it's empty eyes, begging, as a massive weight fell upon Max, buckling him under, crushing his knees beneath it's immense weight, until he collapsed, his ribs creaking and aching under the burden, until they, too, gave way, and all he knew was black.
The cool British Columbian sun broke through the clouds at six-twenty-eight, finding Max Eisenhart alert and awake the last ninety minutes. He had taken the time to shower – a scalding hot one, to scour the feeling of dread and nausea left over from the nightmares – and try to find some place to fill the void in his gut. He thought about walking to the trucker's diner down the highway, but the dreams had killed any appetite he might have had otherwise. He walked around for a bit, taking in the cool morning breeze, and watching the stars slowly fade in the newborn sunlight. By eight o'clock, he had gotten bored of sitting around his motel room, empty belly, watching reruns of some children's show, a middle-aged man in glasses and suspenders putting on a bright green wig and singing to a pair of puppets living in a tree house. He had called for a cab, and decided to try his luck at the airfield. Hopefully they would be open, and he could get on with his mission here.
Jack Emery had just filed away his flight plans for the day, basically up to Dease and back, when Max – Erik Lensherr – arrived with his meagre luggage. The silver-haired man with the German inflection seemed disturbed by something, but Jack made a point of letting people keep to themselves. The plane was fuelled, and so was Jack, as he filled another dose of caffeine into his orange thermos for the flight. He met Mister Lensherr on the tarmac, shook his hand, and led him to the terminal, where everything business-like was settled officially – ticket bought, money exchanged, and a complimentary coffee politely declined. Instead, Max looked out the window, watching the vast expanses of pine trees blur past beneath them. Fog hung around the treetops like halos, frozen in the brisk wilderness air. The stillness of the air, at least beyond the grinding drone of the dual-prop keeping them aloft, reminded him of his home in Argentina; the trees, the birds in the morning, a thousand living alarm clocks he could never seem to find a snooze button for.
He would wake up, make some coffee, and get about teaching the twins, his last remaining children, the realities of the world. Wanda would always struggle with Spanish, and would cry for her mother, not understanding why they couldn't return to Hungary. Peter...just moped, and while he floated through his lessons easily enough, his heart wasn't in them. Instead, he would wander off to be alone. Max, more than once, had found his son hacking away at a tree on their property with a machete that should have been to large for him to even swing, let alone gouge a jagged nest of slashes into the solid trunk of a rubber tree. Max should have seen then, he knew that now. He should have seen the signs, talked to his boy, done what any father should do, would do, to heal his wounded son. But Max had been too damaged himself by the sudden betrayal of their homeland and neighbours, the loss of so much. Peter's wound was great, but Max...Max was cleft in half, and too numb to stitch himself together again. Peter couldn't see that, but that was the trick – the walking wounded never see their own kind, not through their own pain.
Max caught himself tearing up, and quickly wiped it away.
“Yep, you're not the first person to well up over these sights.”
Max turned to Jack in the pilot's seat. “I'm sorry?”
Jack nodded in the direction of the trees below. “The forest. Damned beautiful thing. First time I came up here with my granddad, just about stopped my heart. You ever see anything more wondrous than a rain forest?”
Max played along, and shook his head slightly. “No. Never.”
This seemed to satisfy Jack, and the rest of the flight was hauntingly silent
Dease Lake was a small community of just a smidgen over three hundred souls, a cluster of cabins and simple buildings along sparse paved roads, with some farmhouses further from the main town centre. Max had managed to rent a car at the airport, and headed into town. According to Moira's notes, the man to see was a bar back at a place called Tanzilla Pub. The place itself looked like something pulled out of a road movie, where the townie takes his new girlfriend and gets into some trouble with the local toughs, most likely knocking over their precious motorcycles and leading to comedic hjinks as they flee. Max shook the idea out of his head, and walked inside. The place was full of people, seated at tables and in booths, eating, drinking, talking. Max looked around, but realized he had no idea what his contact looked like. A waitress came up to Max, smiling assuringly. She was pretty, young, a red head; a quick glance at her name tag betrayed that she was Allison.
“Hi there, can I get you a table?”
Max looked beyond her for a second, then settled on her sea foam green eyes, smiling in a friendly manner. “Thank you, no; I'm looking for someone. I believe their name is 'Genie?'”
The smile disappeared, replaced with hooded eyes and a disdainful frown.
“Shit, you're supposed to be by the back entrance, you can't move this shit through here like that during the day. Go on, get, I'll...let him know you're here, but don't do that shit again! You'll get us closed down. It's bad enough Genie pulls this crap during here of all places.”
Max opened his mouth to protest, but Allison's furtive glances to a tall burly man in a black leather jacket, a shield Max recognized to be the insignia of the local police stitched onto the sleeve, sitting at the bar convinced him to play along. He headed back out the door, passing by a young couple – she a rather attractive redhead, he built like an athlete, with short black hair, and both completely oblivious to anything or anyone that wasn't the other.
Had Max waited, only a few seconds more, he might have seen the cold iron glare the woman had given the back of his head.
She turned back to her date, not even bothering to force a smile. “Something about that man, Jimmie. I can feel it.”
The back of the pub was exposed to the rugged country road, fenced in only be some scraggy, underfed fir trees. The cool air inspired Max to huddle in and stand under the vent from the kitchen, as he waited for this 'Genie' person. He would have to have a talk with Moira later about her forthrightness, he didn't think he had nearly as much information as he needed. Clandestine meetings with strangers in other countries...he smiled at the thought of himself as a James Bond-style secret agent. Which he was, when he thought about it.
The faded blue backdoor swung open, and a figure gaited out. It was a man, bald, with a prominent moustache and beard, carrying a large garbage bag. Max' eyes went wide before he caught himself, trying not the stare at the man's diminutive stature – he couldn't have been anymore than three feet tall, if that much. Max worked not to stare as the man threw his burden into the rusted green dumpster by the door. He turned, and saw the silver-haired man standing under the vent, trying to keep warm.
He traipsed over to Max, offering his hand.
“So you the one Allison said was here, huh? Must be Moira's friend, eh?”
Max stood up in surprise. “...You're Genie?”
The little man made a face. “Ugh. Yeah, I'm Genie. Come on, the cops around here can be dicks, let's go into my office.”
Genie opened the door. Max hesitated. “But the girl-”
“Allie's good people, but a bit thick, eh? She thinks I run drugs. Sweet girl, not too bright, she won't give us any trouble. She stays out of my office, knows it's where I do my 'business', eh?”
Max stood for a second, then followed Genie inside. There was a stairwell going down just to the left of the backdoor, a lone wooden door at the bottom. Max followed downwards, into the office. The carpet was an unfortunate shade of mauve, the walls a sad cream. The desk was a maelstrom of papers, files, stationary and a lone bulk-box computer monitor.
“Nice office. Very...vintage.”
“Nah, it's a crappy piece of crap. I got a computer that can barely run Pong, the carpet looks like a wino puked on it, and the walls were ugly even in the seventies. But it's home, and I don't need much fancy for what I do. Besides, all the pub-business stuff goes on a good computer in the main office upstairs. This is my private office. Now, what did Moira tell you about me, eh?”
Max sat in the green metal chair opposite the desk, shifting to find some vestige of comfort and failing.
“Not as much as I'd like. She was coy about the man I'm here to find, and what intel I do have is...unreliable at best.”
Genie snorted a laugh, “Yeah, that figures. The two of them, eh? They both like their secrets. Well, first, intr'ductions. The name's Eugene Judd. They call me Genie 'cause I grant wishes, as long as your wish is ta get the hell outta the country.”
“You're a smuggler, then?”
“Nah, nothing so sordid. People want out, they come to me for help. Yeah, I charge money, it takes liquid to buy the right info, pay the right people, but I don't make a profit or nothing. I only charge what I'll need, and I return any left over.”
Genie – Eugene, Max corrected himself – moved to the filing cabinet behind the desk, opening the second drawer from the bottom and pulling out a sheave of papers.
“The fella you're looking for, he used to run the operation before me. Quit last year, some personal problems with his family. His little girl went missing, damned shame. Anyway, he used to run the racket between here and Genosha, getting people the right papers and out of the country, eh?”
Finally it dawned on Max. “Oh my god, you're an underground railroad for exotics.”
Eugene chuckled, “Yeah, that's how he put it, too. Alright, info. The man you're looking for is Jimmy Howlett. He's a roughneck from way back, and I mean way back. He's probably older than everyone in town put together, not that you'd know to look at him, eh?”
“An immortal exotic? I've never heard of such a thing.”
“Never said he was immortal, just old. I asked him a few times, just how old, but he always played coy with that, eh? Got the feeling, though, that he remembers when the steam engine was a curiosity, though. Nah, the real thing is how fast he heals. That's his real thing. See, aging is just our cells becoming damaged and dead. But Jimmy, his body heals faster than his cells can die. Or something, I dunno, it's all science-y Greek to me, eh? Anyway, Moira tells me yer putting up a school for exotics, you need some teachers, security, things like that, I say more power to ya!”
“So...you're not worried that a school for exotics, a place they can go to be safe and protected, will cut into the railroad's activities?”
Eugene chuckled harder this time. He opened the minifridge behind the desk, pulling out a blue can of beer, cracking it open, and setting it on the desk.
“Worried? Hell no I ain't worried. If you can pull this off, I look forward to the vacation time. Not that I think I'll get much, eh? Oh don't get me wrong, I'm pulling for ya, buddy. But unless yer pullin' in every exotic south a' the border to yer little schoolhouse, there's always gonna be folks comin' up ta Dease ta find some safety. So no, I'm not worried about being put outta business.”
Max looked around the office, a bit dazed by all he was hearing.
“Wait...how do people come to you? I had to take three planes to get here.”
“Yeah, well, we don't really advertise this, but we got some exotics in the States and up here that can move people quickly. A few teleporters in the right towns can make all the difference, eh? But enough shop talk, ya didn't come here to learn how I do business, you came ta find Jimmy, right?”
“That's right. And...I'm sorry for asking, Mister Judd, but just how can you help me find this...Jimmy?”
This time Eugene Judd guffawed loudly, “Hell buddy, I'm drivin' ya right to him! He catches your scent on the wind, an' that ol' wolverine'll find himself a deep hole ta winter in, you'll never get him out! But if I'm with you, he'll at least hear you out a bit before shutting you down, eh?. Now, let's get going, eh?”
Eugene slid from his chair, putting his beer back in the fridge, and slipping a baseball cap as he fished the keys from his pocket, opening the door back upstairs and outside.
The diminutive restaurateur's beaten grey pickup truck rolled down the scraped gravel and asphalt road towards the dense woods in the distance. A small, din-brown sedan sat in the parking lot, watching as the pickup vanished in a cloud of dust. A white horse-trailer wobbles and shook as the car's engine came to life, the trailer's passenger moving about lethargically. Inside the car, a young woman, a redhead – the redhead – looked out the back window at the trailer.
“James, I think it's waking up.”
The man behind the wheel, put the car into gear, and steered the car down the same road the truck had disappeared down only seconds before.
“Then we'd better hurry, hadn't we?
Buckle up, Heather, we're ending this today.”
Heather strapped herself in as the car sped down the vacant road, the thing in the trailer making low snuffling sounds, like an animal.
Jonathan Lowell Spencer Storm hated living in the tunnels. It was dark, dank, and everybody he saw was some sort of hideous freak. He bit the inside of his cheek at that thought, scolding himself for being so stupid. That was the old Johnny, the girl-chaser, the joker. Those days were over. Now he was Johnny the Freak, Johnny the Morlock. Sure, he looked normal. Or at least, he looked like most people up on the surface, since his new 'normal' included squirrel girls and dinosaur doctors. Normal people didn't do what he did. He might have been lucky, got to keep his face, compared to what some people down here get, but it did nothing to make him feel “normal.” He missed things like television, sunlight, even school seemed preferable to life underground. He had had some trouble adapting, spending most of his time moping in the side tunnels and hiding from the others. He preferred to be alone with his thoughts and memories: making time to see Dorrie in between classes, working with his dad to restore that Firebird he was just certain was going to be his centrepiece gift for his sixteenth birthday, trying to stay awake when his sister had one of those god awful nerdgasms over “how brilliant Doctor Richards was, how he was going to change the world, and oh my weren't his eyes just the brightest shade of silver.”
None of that mattered now. He had asked the woman with the weird ears – he never bothered to learn anyone's name, he was certain that, any minute now, he was going to wake up in his bed, probably draped over his bed clumsily – he had asked her what was happening on the surface, and after a few hours of strained listening and careful filtering, she had told him with great difficulty that as far as anyone knew, the Excelsior crashed into the sea, all crew dead. When Johnny heard that, his heart sank and cracked at the same time. His friends, his parents, thought he was dead. He had tried to get Ben to listen, to let him go up top, but the big rock pile had taken to his role as leader of the Morlocks too seriously, and too quickly, and had refused to put so many people in danger just for one moody teenager. Johnny hadn't taken that well, and tried to burn his way to the surface, until...well, Johnny knew now that he couldn't burn Ben. He hadn't even noticed the smoke and burning mildew, the sweltering and prostrated people fainting, faltering, nearly dying, as his escape attempt had turned the tunnels into an oven. When he woke up from Ben's clap to his head, he was horrified to see the damage he had done, the people who were injured. Luckily nobody had died; Doc Lykos had seen to that, and one of the Morlocks – Morris Bench, Johnny was sure his name was – had supplied enough water to rehydrate and treat the heat strokes he had caused. After that incident, Johnny stopped trying to go to the surface. He had accepted that he'd probably spend the rest of his life underground. It wasn't such a bad life, he told himself. There were gardens for food, and filters for water, and even electricity, but that wasn't so reliable down here. And they had healers and books, music was provided by a few of the people who could play an instrument, or sing, or could just conjure music from nothingness. And the girls were...alright, if you didn't mind Doreen's tail; Rita and her six-arms had some possibilities, he thought in his more torrid moments. All in all, Jonathan Storm had become inured to the strangeness that was the life.
Which is why when the air exploded into a searing fog of sulphur and hellfire, and a demonic boy covered in blue velvety fuzz dropped onto his bizarre two-toed feet, Johnny didn't even blink, only wrinkling his nose at the stench. This was Kurt, and Johnny only remembered his name because there weren't that many boys close to his own age down here.
“Johnny! There you are! I was looking everywhere for you!”
“Why'd you do that? I've been right here all this time.”
Kurt ignored Johnny's lazy attempt at sarcasm, he was used to it by now.
“Ben's been asking for you. The new kid Jenny brought in is up.”
Johnny stretched against the wall, cracking his neck loudly. “Great, so what does that mean to me?”
“I dunno, Ben just asked for you. You coming, or not?”
A mote of dust floating in the air just beyond his nose had caught Johnny's attention. It blew at it, kicking it up higher in a circling loop, then sneezing when it went up his nostril. Kurt stifled a laugh, ignoring Johnny's glare, and Johnny pushed off the wall, walking away silently.
Johnny wasn't jumping at Ben's command. No, never think that. He was simply walking around. Maybe he'd check what was cooking on the fires – they had some gardens down here, and one of the teleporters could summon things to them, rather than go places, so meat wasn't quite rat-burgers yet – or he might chat up one of the ladies. He seemed popular with them, but of course he was, the alternatives were guys with talking tumours or melted faces. He might check out what game the kids were playing, join them in a bit of tag or something, he hadn't really decided. And if, in his ambling, he found his way to Ben, so be it. But he was not jumping at Ben's command. Ben and this new guy could wait, for all Johnny cared.
Peter sat by the wall, absorbing everything Ben Grimm had told him; about rooming with Reed Richards – the Reed Richards, Peter kept telling himself – about the Excelsior's construction, the maiden voyage, the crash....and how Doctor Richards was killed by the AEI. Peter knew that the Anti-Exotic Initiative was a bunch of bastards, but to have killed a man like Doctor Richards...it bothered him. He had read a few of Reed's books, his thesis on harnessing cosmic radiation as a power source, and even attended a science camp he lectured at when he was twelve. The man was everything Peter had wanted to be. And now that was gone, like so much else.
Ben, for his part, exhaled sadly, a curtain of sour smoke hanging around his head like a hazy halo.
“Kid, you alright?” The gruffly-voiced golem inquired.
Peter inhaled through his teeth, nodding silently otherwise. Nobody really knew what had happened to the Excelsior. Sure, it crashed, all crew lost, that was national news last year. But nobody really knew.
“S-so...you and Johnny were....the flight did this to you?” Peter's voice stumbled over his words.
Ben stood up, sounding like a quarry rising from it's bed, as his crusty skin creaked and ground against itself. “Nah, not the flight. Reed called it a 'long-wave gamma ribbon'. That's how Reed was, always pullin' out a five dollar word when there were so many free ones he coulda used instead. The Excelsior's plating was supposed to protect us, but I guess we were pinged by a micrometeor that cracked it, compromised the shielding. Reed double checked it twice, he wouldna made a mistake like that. Not Reed. Everything had to be measured, weighed...the man took a measuring tape to his shoelaces, fer cryin' out loud, just ta make sure the loops were symmetrical.”
A low orange glow flared an inch from Ben's face, as he sucked solemnly on the battered stogie clenched in his teeth. He thought for a mournful second, holding back the emotion.
“However it happened, the navigations were cooked. It was a statistical miracle we landed in America, let alone in one piece. And when we finally pulled ourselves out of that flaming pile of wasted billions, we were too stunned by the whole damned affair to even notice what had happened to us. Johnny was on fire, Reed was melting into a puddle, we couldn't find Susie, and...I was hunched over in the corner puking my guts out and clawing at my skin. We didn't notice the AEI until the bullets were flying. Johnny got one in the shoulder, an' I...I wasn't gettin' nothin', just ricochet's off my back. Susie vanished in all th' chaos, an' Reed...they did something to Reed. Hurt him bad. I heard him scream, an' he just melted inta a puddle. I woulda rushed in ta stomp those jackasses myself, but Johnny was bleedin' bad. I had to get him outta there.”
Ben Grimm fell silent. Peter felt an overwhelming urge to overshare his own life tragedies, but held himself silent, not wanting to usurp Ben's grief with his own.
Peter almost sighed in relief when a tall, thin youth poked his head in the door. Almost, but he was so busy jumping out of his skin when the boy cleared his throat. Odd, Peter thought, nobody gets the drop on me.
“You wanted to see me, Ben?” The young man sounded bored to be there, and didn't even bother to look at Peter sitting on the floor.
Ben stood up, sounding for all the world like a mountain on the move, his cigar bleeding lose ashes on the damp stone floor.
“Yeah, Johnny. This is Peter. I want ya ta find him a room somewhere, maybe in one a' the unused blocks, I think we still got some room near the hydr'ponics room.”
Peter stood up, confused. “I'm so-|
“And tomorrow, I want you ta take him ta Caliban, see about gettin' ta work in th' generator room.”
Johnny huffed petulantly. “Seriously? There were things I wanted to do today, Ben. I was planning on staring at the mildew for a few hours; it's starting to get really fascinating now, all the complex relationships and characterizations.”
“Can th' sarcasm, hotfoot. If th' kid's gonna stay-”
“Okay, stop the train, I'm getting off here! Who said I was staying?” Peter was surprised by the tone of his voice, he hadn't heard anything so...bald and aggressive, since Flash Thompson made some snide remark about Uncle Ben and had to take a few weeks off until the swelling went down.
Ben half-turned to Peter, a bit stung by the boy's intonation.
“Kid, I thought—didn't I say?”
Peter took a step back. A low tingle in the back of his skull told him that he should brace himself for something.
“No, you didn't say. What didn't you say?”
Ben took a deep drag on the cigar, killing it before pulling it from his teeth and crushing it out on his stony palm.
“Kid, we can't let you leave. It's too dangerous. You're going to have to stay here.”
To Be Continued
Next Time: Peter tries to find some way to escape the hidden camp of exotics, while Max has to deal with a man against whom his magnetic powers are useless.
Sign up to rate and review this story