Mr. Chonkers. That was his name, and he kinda, sorta, but not really, recognized it when the Apex spoke it to him. The vibrations that made up his name were often followed up with small morsels of tasty rat meat, so Mr. Chonkers did his very best to memorize the sound. It was only natural that he was smart enough to recognize the sounds of the Apex, as he was the Alpha of his troop of “nessies” (another sound he recognized, he was just that good).
Once upon a time, Mr. Chonkers had been small, hiding from one shallow pool to another, scraping the barest scraps of algae from the wet stones. Now? Now he was the biggest of his troop of nessies, which was the largest troop of nessies for miles around, which by right of might made him Alpha of Alphas. When he flipped his tail flukes the females crooned. When he bit other males they squealed! None could deny that of nessies he was the greatest example. Technically this meant he was Apex, and he was in the eyes of his troop, but being the wise nessie that he was, he knew that that title belonged to the many-legged one.
Destroyer of the hated rats, killer of the darkest beasts, bringer of meats. The many-legged one was the true Apex, and it was in her lair that the troop sheltered. While the troop rested in her protection the rats dared not attack, and all fanged ones had been turned aside. Truly this was a paradise.
Many ages ago (five months), Mr. Chonkers had realized that the many-legged one did not kill the nessies (after two months of being bonked), and that she did not care for the scraps of her domain. He had led his troop to her tunnel, and there they had thrived, growing fat and strong, and able to push other rival troops from the prime scraping spots.
Life had been good. But then the corrupted ones came.
They smelled of rat, but they were not rat. They had many arms and legs and claws, and they hunted his kind without mercy. There was once a balance between nessie and rat, but these newer, corrupted rats hunted everything, even the normal rats, and all the beings of the tunnels shunned them. Many an Alpha had met its end defending its troop from the corrupted ones, and Mr. Chonkers’ troop had grown large from absorbing the females and beta males that survived.
At first it had been pretty great, but now it was getting kind of crowded.
Vibrations! Movement! It was coming!
Another new change. Around the same time the corrupted ones appeared, had come the False One. Always hanging around the Apex, and distracting her from giving Mr. Chonkers treats. It looked like prey but was predator. Its flesh was fresh and alive, but also a carrion shell. It tried to hide what it was, but Mr. Chonkers could tell. While blind, he could smell a patch of filmy sludge from ten tunnels away, let alone a corpse, or the delicious odor that came from the False One’s sugar-rich, chemical-tainted meat shell.
Mr. Chonkers waited for the False One’s vibrations to draw close… and then lunged at the False One, and was bonked for his efforts. So stingy! So mean! It would never woo the attentions of a female as large as the Apex by being so selfish!
Speaking of which…
Mr. Chonkers slipped through the water, and then bit a beta male on the flank, causing it to squeal. A just punishment for getting too close to Mr. Chonkers favorite female. Know your place!
Admittedly, it was hard for the beta males to put distance between themselves and his harem with so little room, but that was their problem!
Mr. Chonkers blew some bubbles in a show of dominance, then began searching the edges of the lair for any algae or sludge that might have turned up. It really was becoming a problem how crowded it was. Maybe the Apex was feeling generous?
He swam back to the center of the Apex’s lair, but failed to feel any vibrations that would indicate the Apex was about to hand out tasty morsels. In fact…
She was gone! The False One as well! He had been too distracted, and had missed their departure. Stupid beta male! Stupid hungry tummy! Without the Apex they were all doomed! Doomed to be hunted by things with sharp teeth and no manners! Doomed to wallow- oh hey wait, what was that smell?
Mr. Chonkers and several other nessies all smelled it. The current had changed, and they could now detect several new patches of slime, as well as half a dead rat just beyond the boundaries of the Apex’s domain.
There was a mad dash for the new food sources, but Mr. Chonkers bit many flanks, and slapped his tail in many faces to get to the rat corpse first. It was a tiny morsel, only half a pound of rat, but to a nessie it was a feast.
He promptly ate half, before giving the other half to a new female that had only joined the troop two days ago, because Mr. Chonkers was a gentlenessie who knew how to woo the lassies (unlike a stingy fake he knew).
Mr. Chonkers observed the other nessies as they set about scouring the patches of slime and algae. Then he tried to think about why there was suddenly more food. The Apex had left. The current had shifted. They were all doomed. There was more food. The False One also left. Rats were tasty but mean. The Apex left. They were all doomed. Had he thought that already?
He put all of his brain power to work on trying to connect the dots. So many new things had happened, far too much for one being to put together, even if he was so smart and amazing. But, he knew that his troop was counting on the brilliant him to lead them to safety, so he didn’t give up, he kept thinking with all his might and- WHO THE HELL WAS MAKING A MATING CALL IN HIS TROOP!?! HE WAS THE ALPHA DAMNIT!
He head arched back and forth on his long neck, the tentacles lining his mouth wriggling as he tried to detect the exact source of the vibration that signaled a male was ready to mate. He was going to bite their flank so hard!
The signal kept coming, louder and louder (how big was this male?), until it started to overwhelm him. It thrummed, it beat, it pulsed… wait. This wasn’t a mating call… it was coming from… inside his own head?
The vibration pulsed from deep in his head, out of his mouth, and then out into the world. Then the echo returned, giving him a crystal clear imprint of the world around him. Nessies were good at sensing vibration, but this was at a whole other level; he was a genius!
Another pulse, and then another. Each echo bigger than the last, and each one giving him a more perfect picture of the world around him. First the tunnels around the Apex’s lair, then the tunnels throughout the sector, then the entire city and beyond; he sensed it all.
He knew that a large metal thing would have a delay because a meat-walker would stick its foot in the metal thing’s mouth for too long. He knew that the Traveler stalked the walls of the Fortress, seeking entry. He saw the Little Things that permeated the meat-walkers, trying to save the meat from Everything. He knew things that would happen tomorrow, or a thousand years ago, for what was time but motion, the measure of change between moments. Falling rocks that hit one after the other, transferring a wave of kinetic energy that had echoed since the Everything began? The secrets of the Everything were all his to peruse! He sensed it all and he knew it all!
Which was why he bit the male sitting next to him on the flank. The beta was going to try and woo a female Mr. Chonkers would meet a week from now. Know your place! The confused male squeaked in submission and swam away, as was proper. Mr. Chonkers then turned back to doing…
...what had he been doing again?
Oh right. He had to move the troop to a new den.
This one wouldn’t be safe much longer.
“Sir? I’m going to have to insist that you wake up.”
Abe’s head was pounding. He felt like he’d just gotten hit by a train. He tried to open his eyes, but the bright light suddenly attacking his retinas had him clutching his head in pain.
“Are you alright sir? And what are you doing back here? If this is Odd Summer related I’m afraid I’ll need some kind of answer from you.”
“I, ugh. Sorry, head hurts,” Abe mumbled, and tried again to open his eyes. From what he could make out, he was in some random alleyway. He didn’t recognize it.
“Understandable, but considering you had an illegal weapon on you, I’m going to have to insist that you work through it and start giving me answers.”
Abe finally managed to look past the blur of sunlight and see who he was talking to. It was a cop, and he had his gun drawn and aiming at Abe from a good distance away. The sudden sight of a weapon trained on him kickstarted his brain.
“I-I’m an exterminator! Abraham Cunningham. License number four-four-six, F-six-F, six-D-six, five-six-four. I have a permit for the bolter, I was-”
It came back to him in a rush. The dark tunnels, the ambush, the run in with various horrors, those eyes! He suddenly sat up, then clutched his head and yelled in pain at the sudden movement. Luckily the cop had steady nerves, or he might have gotten shot. He sputtered as he tried to get words out. “M-my team! W-we were- ugh.”
“Woah there, take it easy,” replied the cop, “I’ll check your badge number and you just take your time, no rush.”
The cop gingerly removed his phone and started punching numbers, not putting away the gun but lowering the aim so it wasn’t pointed at Abe. Couldn’t blame the cop for being careful; if you thought getting called in for monsters was bad, try dealing with a domestic dispute during Odd Summer. Abe didn’t envy his job.
Although some days the monsters were definitely worse.
“Alright, looks like it checks out,” said the cop, holstering his weapon. “Think you’re up for telling me what happened? This have something to do with what happened at the hospital?”
“Yes, my team and I were hired to try and track the creatures responsible. We were told the villain who made them was a puppeteer; our intel must have been faulty. The sewers were damn near crawling with life. M-my team… I doubt any of them made it…” Abe’s thoughts spiraled at that. You lost people in this business sometimes, but this was an unmitigated disaster. If he hadn’t had the bolter he would be dead as well. Speaking of which…
“Where’s my bolter? I had it on me.” Did the cop take it? Abe didn’t see it on him. He tried to get to his feet, but stumbled. Did he have a concussion? It felt like a concussion.
“Before that, you said there’s stuff in the sewers?” asked the cop, offering him a hand up. “A puppeteer you said?”
“I don’t think it’s a puppeteer, I think it’s a tinker,” replied Abe. It must have been a concussion, his head felt so foggy. His brain seemed to be having trouble putting one thought in front of the other. “There were so many varieties, and the ones who attacked the hospital were different, those all had stitches… it might be more than one super. I’d bet money on at least one tinker, some of those things, they were… they were breeding down there.”
“Well. I’ll call it in and hopefully they can get a hero on it pronto,” said the cop.
“Does this sector have a hero who can handle large scale infestations? My team wouldn’t be able to handle that many even if we were ... even if we were at full strength.”
“I’m sure we can find someone to handle it.”
“Are you not hearing me?!” yelled Abe, grabbing the front of the cop’s shirt. It felt waxy, almost like plastic, or maybe cheap synthetic silk. “There is a major infestation in this sector! Screw calling in a hero! This sector should be in lockdown and the sewers purged! If those things get out into the city at large we could be facing a disaster!”
“...can you let go of my shirt please sir?” said the cop.
Abe realized what he was doing and released the cop. Outburst over, he wavered unsteadily and the cop had to help keep him from falling back to the ground.
“Either way, I think the first thing is to get you medical attention,” said the cop, slowly getting one of Abe’s arms over his shoulder and supporting him so he could walk. “No worries, I’ll report this monster business in to my superiors and they’ll handle it from there. You on the other hand need to get to a hospital. Come on, it’s right around the corner.”
They started heading down the alleyway, which was between tall buildings and sheltered from the main roads surrounding the block. How did Abe even get here? The last thing he remembered was the thing with the eyes in the sewer. He’d tried to shoot it, and the next thing he knew he was miraculously aboveground, if a bit worse for wear.
“Wait, my bolter,” said Abe, suddenly remembering. Damn this concussion. He couldn’t leave the bolter, his company had only had the four of them, and after today it seemed unlikely they’d be able to replace the ones they did lose. Bolters and similar tools were vital for people in his profession, but the tinker made weapons didn’t come cheap, and without them the company might collapse. And what’s left of my team shouldn’t lose their jobs on top of everything else.
“It’s over here,” said the cop. The bolter had been placed on the lid of a random trash can against the wall of the alley. It seemed almost sacrilegious to see the high-tech weapon lying among the common garbage of the day. You’d think he’d put it somewhere better than a random trash can. Couldn’t his partner have held onto it?… Wait a minute. Where was the cop’s partner? Cops did not work alone as a rule, and during Odd Summer you never saw them alone.
How had he gotten out of the sewer? Where was the cop’s partner? Something in Abe’s addled brain finally clicked, this wasn’t a cop. The cop’s uniform, his phone, his gun, none of them had been quite right, none of them standard issue.
He could feel his adrenaline start to flow, but he didn’t take any action that would show his hand. His bolter, once he had that he’d be fine. It didn’t look like the fake cop was going to stop him from retrieving it.
“Damn, what gave me away?” asked the cop.
Abe didn’t wait a second. His hand moved to grab the fake cop’s gun (definitely not a standard police taser gun), and then he shoved the cop while pulling the gun from the holster, adrenaline and nerves and training temporarily making up for the concussion.
He trained the gun on the strangely relaxed cop, “Alright you son of a bitch. I don’t know who the fuck you are, but-”
The gun dissolved in his hands. One second it was a hefty, eight-cylinder revolver that looked a bit like a police gun. The next second it might as well have been sand for how it crumbled.
Abe turned and lunged for the bolter. His opponent was a super! The bolter was his only hope.
He grabbed the bolter. Turned. Aimed. Fired.
The bolter let out a whine and then exploded, taking most of Abe’s right hand with it.
“Yeah, I should have mentioned it was broken.”
“AGH, my hand! My fucking hand!”
“Yes, it’s pretty bad. Not enough to trigger mutavus though, unless we let you bleed out. Come on, the hospital is close by and you really do need medical help now. Maybe if you restrain your unnecessary outbursts and think a bit more we can actually improve your situation.”
The fake cop casually walked over to Abe and offered him a hand up, then thought better of it since Abe was using his only uninjured hand to staunch the bleeding. Abe flinched when the man put a hand on his shoulder, but when it became apparent the cop was only helping him up Abe let him. At this point his addled mind was barely keeping up. The cop wasn’t a cop, but he was helping him? Confusion and pain were the only things going through Abe’s distracted mind, and if the cop wasn’t actually out to get him then Abe wouldn’t question it. Instead he tried to just concentrate on staying standing.
Which made it quite simple for the “cop” to stab a knife into the base of Abe’s skull and up into his brain, killing him instantly.
Such a waste.
I tried to do as Nicole wanted, but in the end the human just proved too stupid to save. At some point after I tried to help him to the hospital, he figured out I wasn’t a real police officer, and since I was helping him walk I was close enough to smell the flood of adrenaline when he realised I wasn’t who I said I was.
I wonder what gave me away? Admittedly there were several flaws in my disguise, but it was the best idea I could think of to get willing answers out of him. The only thing better would have been a hero, but that would have made it impossible to avoid notice, and I would have been under far harsher scrutiny if I tried to bring the exterminator to the hospital. The police disguise was my attempt to get answers and remain undiscovered long enough to leave him with medical help. So much for that plan.
In the end what finally sealed his fate was him pulling the fake gun I made. Any of his other outbursts would have been fine, even when he blew off his own hand, but pulling the fake pistol I made and discovering my ability meant I needed to get rid of him. The way my micro units dissolved was too easily identifiable at this stage, and I couldn’t have my criminal exploits be associated with Nicole. If he told his story of encountering a giant scorpion mutant, and then someone with ‘dissolving pieces’, well, that would just cause too much trouble for everyone involved. A shame too, I put a lot of effort into making that gun seem real, despite not having the time to perfect it. The next time I got my hands on one I'd make sure to dismantle it for the smaller details, along with a whole police officer if possible.
I finished my dismantling and disposal of the corpse, and put my disguise back to normal before leaving the alleyway. Then I started to make my way to the closest elevator back to Hellion’s base.
From what I’d learned from the interrogation, the man was part of an ‘exterminator team’ whose job it was to remove dangerous organisms from the environment. The good news was that he wasn’t affiliated with New Dawn Inc. beyond buying their weaponry, so I didn’t need to worry about problems from that vector for now. The bad news was that he was part of a team, which meant that multiple people whose job it was to kill monsters now knew the sewers were crawling with them. I didn’t know how many of them there were, and hunting them down simply wouldn’t be effective. Even if I managed to find and kill them all, an entire team going missing would have been proof enough that the sewers needed purging.
So. The next plan of action was to ask for help like Sandra said to do. This situation with the stitch-rat creator had become too complicated for me to investigate by myself. I’d wind up bringing down either the cops or the capes on my head if I tried to do this alone.
Speaking of which, where were the heroes in all this? Shouldn’t they be taking care of this stitch-rat person by now? Annoying. I no longer needed this stitch-rat creator to create materials for me seeing as I had a sewer full of interesting resources. Now I needed this super out of the way before the city purged my new hunting ground. Not taking care of this problem when it showed up was “coming back to bite me” (I liked that idiom, it made sense). In the future I’d need to be more careful about putting things off for later.
Which is why the next step would be to fill out an after-action report for this last job before asking Sandra for help.
Nicole hadn’t been kidding when she said will-o-wisps could become the size of subway trains.
One particularly large specimen had carved out an equally large den for itself at the bottom of a wide sewer canal, and had used the prime location to grow quite fat on passing fauna.
In fact, it had sensed a particularly juicy looking morsel, and had tried to make a quick snack out of it only to find out said morsel was a bit more than it could chew.
“Yo bossman you need any help!?” asked Turbo.
“I’m fine! Just stand back, and watch the tail!” replied Brick.
As if determined to prove Brick wrong, the will-o-wisp whipped its head (with Brick clenched in its jaws) into the side of the tunnel. Then again into the opposite side, cement chips and masonry exploding with each impact. It looked like the world’s angriest eel thrashing a chew toy.
Finally the will-o-wisp stopped thrashing, and instead looked like it was trying to grind its prospective meal into paste against the stone wall. Unfortunately for it, Brick was tougher than the... well, bricks.
There was a quiet moment of tension, and then the will-o-wisp was forced back from the wall. Inch by inch, and then step by step, the eel-thing was forced to give ground. Brick had one hand on a fang in the creature’s upper mouth and another on the lip of its lower jaw. Carefully, and with one final shove, Brick forced its mouth wide and then quickly jammed a stoney foot into the creature’s mouth and stomped down, opening up its mouth farther than even its wide jaw was supposed to go. The creature tried to pull away or thrash, but the foot that wasn’t in the creature’s mouth was anchored into the pavement where Brick had stomped a hole. Gripping the upper teeth with both hands now, Brick shoved, hard. The creature’s jaw streeeeetched and snapped, and the creature roared its pain into Brick’s face.
Brick just grunted in reply. Then he reached farther into the will-o-wisps broken jaw and punched into the underside of the creature’s palate. Once, twice, the meaty twacks echoing down the sewer were mirrored by the creature’s roars. Then with one final punch his fist broke through, right into the creature’s brain.
That… didn’t quite kill the thing. Apparently the brain was merely window dressing for the will-o-wisp’s brutal instincts, so Brick was forced to dig a bit deeper before the creature gave its last shuddering roar and died. Then he had to dig his way out, an overall messy affair. He was covered in the thing’s red/purple blood, and his tinker-treated clothes had been shredded, just barely leaving him decent (those teeth had been sharp).
“Damn bossman. You alright?” asked Turbo.
“Fine. You find them?” Brick didn’t spare a moment.
Turbo grimaced, “Three of em. Brought em topside and left them with cops.”
Turbo flinched, but then scowled, “Yeah. Just three. Those things all scattered in different directions. There’s miles of tunnel man, and it’s dangerous shit. I can’t run up the walls if I fall into some fucking snake hole in the middle of nowhere, you know that! Like I want to not find them huh? Well you can-”
“I’m sorry,” said Brick suddenly, raising a hand to stop Turbo’s tirade before it really got going. “That came out wrong. I’m just worried about them.”
Turbo frowned, but muttered, “Yeah, me too.”
Brick took a deep breath, “Alright. We need to make a few calls, see if any better suited supers in the surrounding sectors can spare the time to help us find this prick. Otherwise we need to call Magenta in and search the sewers together as a team.”
Turbo hesitated, “I hate to bring it up, but maybe we should call for a lockdown? That’d get us real help in a hurry, and its not like we can’t claim legitimate need with shit like this in the sewers.”
“I considered it, but if we call this in and say the sewer’s infested, what’s the first thing you think Central will do? Lend us a super, or just gas the sewers?”
“Right. So until further notice, all this crap...” Brick kicked the dead eel-thing, “...is because of one rogue puppeteer, and we just need someone to help find him.”
“You got it boss. I’ll run ahead and start making those calls.”
“Alright, and um… mind running me some fresh duds? I’m afraid these are going to fall off if I shift back,” said Brick, gesturing at his torn and bloody clothes.
“Hahaha, you need to find a real suit bossman. I’ll see what I can do,” laughed Turbo, and with that he was gone, the air rustling briefly in the wake of his rapid exit.
“Tch, easier said than done,” muttered Brick. You could get clothes that fit shapeshifters, and clothes that could withstand what bruisers like Brick went through, but both? Good luck. Tinker clothes were expensive as it was, and Central wasn’t quite willing to foot the bill for “non-vital” equipment. Non-vital his bare ass, he needed pants dammit!
He started making his way back to the entrance he’d used to enter the sewers, pondering the situation as he did so. Things were… somewhat worse than he had discussed with Turbo. After the incident in the mall, Brick had gone digging through the missing persons' files again, and he had found a discrepancy. Of the missing people in the files, almost thirty percent were mutants, far higher than any other demographic. E13 had a larger population of mutants than most sectors, even the other outer sectors, but even then the ratio was still only one mutant per twenty people or so. The disappearances on record started just a few days before Odd Summer officially started, which meant this villain had probably been one of the first new triggers of the summer, and had been lying low while they stockpiled… parts.
Brick had to resist punching the wall and possibly damaging it. It made a sick sort of sense really. From the analysis on the corpses, their forensics had determined that the victims needed to be alive when the surgery was performed, or at least… fresh. Normally any villain that targeted civilians in such a way would wind up dead when a victim inevitably triggered or mutated out of control, but if you started off with mutants? Well, no chance of a trigger, and they were already mutated. There were hundreds of missing people’s files on record, both in and around E13; how many of those missing people were now trapped in a lightless cell in some super villain’s lair? They’d die along with the villain and the sewer life if Central decided to take the easy way and gas the sector.
The thought both angered Brick and… shamed him. Such a noticeable uptick in mutant disappearances should have been noted before now. Sure, it could be partially blamed on the fact the disappearances had started right before the feud between Hellion and the Espada reached its fiery conclusion, but more likely… more likely it had just been sort of ignored. Brick tried to remain impartial as best he could, but he wasn’t blind to the fact that the vast majority of people wished that mutants would just disappear. The attitude was everywhere, even if people didn’t voice it. They were afraid they would catch mutavus themselves, or if they were informed enough to know you didn’t ‘catch’ mutavus, they still just didn’t like having walking reminders that they could become monsters around. Hell, how often had he heard slurs like ‘cockroach’ muttered by police officers and heroes, and even his own teammates?
Brick reached the sewer entrance ladder and sighed. Turbo wasn’t back yet, and he’d need to drop his shift to climb the ladder. He did so, and miracle of miracles, his pants actually stayed on. He used the torn scraps of his shirt to help cover some of the worst spots, and then climbed the ladder. He was still covered in viscera from the eel-thing, and he needed to be careful not to slip, but he wasn’t about to wash off using sewer water. Besides, something like this was nothing to the grim task ahead of him. Taking on this villain would likely be far, far worse than some overgrown eel brain bits.
He reached the top and climbed out, the manhole cover hadn’t been replaced since he last used it. Outside on the street, he was surrounded by the normal three to four story buildings of northern E13. Colorful and hodgepodge from all the modifications over the years, he had always thought the buildings brought a charm to E13 that you couldn’t find in other sectors. They created a colorful tableau that heroes of E13 had never had the heart to call city planners to fix, and Brick shared those sentiments.
Which made the bombed out and fire damaged building across from him all the more painful. This particular building used to have some of the most colorful and intriguing modifications in the whole sector, and it wouldn’t have been wrong to say that this was the origination point of all such modifications.
Yes, Brick and his team definitely had a grim task ahead of them. After all, what kind of sick monster attacked an orphanage?