Outside the limits of the city, Crater and Cavalier battled what was perhaps Vicissitude’s greatest creation. An amalgam of over a hundred people merged with an unspeakable number of animals, the abomination stood over forty feet in height and was many tens of tons of pulsating, unstoppable flesh and bone.
Every punch seemed to anger the beast, and no matter how hard they hit it, and no matter what with, it simply roared, struck back, and advanced. Cavalier was flying around what he assumed was its “behind” when it struck down with a huge arm that ended in a bone harpoon that would have easily skewered an orca. Although it did not actually harm him, the blow sent him straight down into the ground and knocked the wind out of him.
For the first time since he had developed his powers, cavalier knew fear. Several more arms loomed over him, and a giant mouth filled with craggy, bone spur teeth began to settle over him. As he struggled to get up, he noticed the entire creature begin to lift off the ground, its oddly disproportionate army of small feet trying to walk on nothing but air.
Then there was a bright, concentrated blast of light that erupted from the sky and burned a basketball sized hole right through its center. All of its voices rose up in anguish. Cavalier took the moment of the distraction to leap up and grab the thing’s oversized mouth. It stretched out toward him, but he simply grabbed harder and flew backward. The flesh surrounding it elongated and strained. Then, with the sickening sound of tearing flesh and snapping ligaments, the mouth ripped free and Cavalier flew off backward into a tree.
Lightfoot and String Theory flew side by side a thousand feet up. String motioned toward the creature, and then gave a thumbs down motion to Lightfoot, who nodded. With a thought, the creature was released from the anti-gravity she had generated, only to find itself struggling to get up as she increased the local gravity to many times that of the normal surface of the Earth. String Theory hovered just over the hole he had blasted into the monster, then transformed into pure lead.
He dropped out of the sky like a bullet, striking the beast with so much energy that he left an exit wound several times his diameter. Crater was knocked aside by the impact, and the beast shuddered and convulsed, its many mouths shrieking in insanity, pain and rage. Last on the scene was Carbon. She’d learned that String Theory was on his way to this particular location and hoped to redirect him toward the interior of the city.
However, she was not expecting the pulsating mess that assaulted her eyes when she arrived. Without hesitation, she rushed at the creature, sword drawn. Two of its limbs, one a fleshy tentacle and the other a bony, almost insect-like arm, dropped to confront her. With barely a thought, she made two powerful strikes that severed them neatly. She ran up the side of the thing, keeping her footing with a combination of superhuman agility and her boots that allowed her to cling to surfaces.
Inside the monster, String Theory was grabbing bits and pieces that looked important before blasting out of the top through a newer hole than the one he’d entered from. From the exit wound, Carbon saw what looked like a beating heart mixed with a brain. She had no idea what it was, but it appeared important, so she fought past a sea of groping limbs and biting mouths, chopping off anything that wandered too close while fighting to maintain balance on its shifting bulk.
A tentacle that likely belonged to a squid managed to wrap around her ankle and stop her dead in her tracks. Carbon went down hard on the mountain of flesh. She rolled to the side just in time to avoid being impaled by a spear-arm. She hacked the limb off, then plunged her blade straight down into the body below her. There was a scream that seemed to come from everywhere at once. She drew the sword back out and chopped at the tentacle on her leg, severing it.
Carbon snapped back to her feet, and dove over toward the organ she was trying to reach. She drove the blade straight through its center. The thing spasmed once, and she thought she had trapped herself in an awkward angle, open to attack from any side, until she realized that every flailing limb had gone limp and its multitudinous eyes all lolled.
She slid down the giant carcass and walked over to where String Theory had landed next to Lightfoot. With the immediate threat of the creature out of the way, she needed String’s help urgently. As she walked over, she heard a loud voice shout “YOU!” and looked up to see Cavalier bearing down on her. With amazing speed, String leaped into the air and fired off to intercept him mere feet away from Cavalier pinning her to the ground.
Next, Crater landed right next to her and balled his fist, as if to strike. Carbon was faster, however, and had her drawn sword pressed against his jugular before he could blink. “You’ll be dying before you hit the ground, big man….”
String Theory got up and looked at Cavalier. “What the HELL, man? She’s one of us!” Cavalier stood up and spit at the ground in her direction. “Is she? We, Crater and me, did what you asked, what she suggested, and look at what happened! Everything. Everything is falling apart, and because of her, we sat by and did nothing.”
“Hang on.” String said. “That was put to a vote. We all agreed that you needed to back off, because you were doing more harm than good. it’s not our fault that you ignored the signs emerging around the world.” Carbon chimed in “And it wasn’t our fault you insist on staying in the city when any number of other places could have used your help. Your judgement is questionable at best.”
Cavalier shook his head in disgust. “I told you. I warned you. Women are soft, and by going soft, we’re now losing a war.” Carbon flipped her blade back into its scabbard. “We don’t have time for this. String, there is something going on in the city. I think these creatures on the outskirts are a distraction so that someone can plant a bomb or worse in the center tower. I saw them unloading some vans, and Ratpack was with them.”
String Theory started slightly. “Ratpack was with someone? That psychopath is with someone?” Carbon nodded grimly. String nodded. “We need to go, then.” He started to walk away with Carbon when a strong hand grabbed his arm. “Don’t listen to her. I’ve had enough of her theories, we have a real problem with those things out here, we can’t afford you off playing around with her hunches.”
String yanked his arm away. “I don’t work for you, Jimbo. if you want to stay and fight, great, but I’m going with her.” “Then we’ll stop her.” Growled Crater, who swatted at the woman who he believed wasn’t paying attention. Unfortunately for him, she was always paying attention. He impaled his own hand on her quickly drawn sword. Cavalier, not caring that his friend initiated the conflict, dove after her. String Theory grabbed his ankle at the last second and turned into lead again, stopping him cold. He dropped an elbow onto the man’s back, throwing him to the ground.
Angry and humiliated, Cavalier spun into an uppercut and launched String Theory into the air. Enraged by the pain in his hand, Crater yanked his injured hand back and punched straight out with his other hand at Carbon. She nimbly dove aside, but Crater simply jumped into the air and tried to body slam her. She caught his shoulder as she dodged, the blow throwing her several feet. Had she been a normal woman, that would have been her last gasp in the fight. The power of the big man was such that a vertebra and three ribs cracked.
She angrily gritted her teeth and stood up. Even as she began to move, the bones began to mend back together. Carbon leaped straight up into the air and drove the hilt of her sword down hard onto the back of Crater’s skull and he started to lift himself. He dropped into an unconscious heap. “We don’t have time for this bullshit!” She shouted, then dodged aside as a manhole cover hurled by Cavalier sailed past.
String used his onboard communications to call up to Lightfoot. “Helen, we need your help. Crater and Cav have gone postal.” Lightfoot nodded to no one in particular and responded “Roger that.” She dropped out of the air, then slowly, lightly landed on the ground. Carbon was circling Cavalier, and String was clearly ready to blast him if he attacked again. Crater started to get up. Lightfoot shouted “Enough!” and pointed a hand each at Cavalier and Crater.
Both felt as if the air around them was constricting them, and they floated off the ground. Lightfoot concentrated the gravity inside them to the point that they could not lift their limbs away from their bodies, and off the ground so they couldn’t push off if they did. “You’ll kill hundreds.” Cavalier choked out through gritted teeth.
Carbon walked up and got directly into his face. “Your delay here might kill millions.” She pivoted on her heel and ran over to an overturned dirt bike. String flew over and handed her a headset. “So we can keep in touch. I’ll follow you, let’s go!” Carbon kick-started the bike and roared off back in the city with String flying a hundred or so feet up above.
Carbon had guided String Theory into the interior of the city, and they were nearing the building where She’d seen ratpack and what she assumed was a bomb. She was just about to tell him specifically which entrance she used when suddenly her bike was jerked heavily to the side. She flew off at an awkward angle, thrown by her forward momentum and the violent change in direction that the bike had made. She slammed into a wall and fell roughly onto the ground.
Dazed for a second, she couldn’t quite moved when out of nowhere appeared a woman wearing a black-blue suit. “Oh sweetie, I’m sorry. But we have plans and we can’t have any ‘heroes’ getting in the way of them.” As her thoughts focused, Carbon recognized Indigo Shift, and suddenly many of the recent, bizarre slaying made sense. Indigo had no idea who Carbon was, however, so she was quite surprised when the woman was not only not dead from the crash, but well enough to draw her sword and take a swing.
She had managed to open a large, ugly gash in Indigo’s palm. “You bitch!” She shrieked. The next thing Carbon knew, she was being battered from all sides faster than she could react. Something struck her right leg, then her left shoulder, then her head. She stood still, accepting the punishing blows and trying to discern a pattern. After what seemed like minutes, she thought she had a feel for the routine Indigo was using. She ducked and threw her blade up to her right, and to the surprise of both her and the suddenly stopped Indigo Shift, she had blocked a downward swing from an aluminum baseball bat with the flat edge of her sword.
Before either woman could recover, a blast of bright blue energy blasted apart the dumpster that was near them. “Sorry Carbon, couldn’t risk hitting you, too.” She felt a wave of relief wash over her at the sound of his voice. She reversed her blade and swung at Indigo’s heart but the other woman was already speeding away, looking for another opportunity to attack.
String theory blasted off after her, his suit capable of not only matching her speed, but maneuvering the streets of the city’s financial district. “Reap, she’s trying to avoid me and double back to come after you again.”
Carbon nodded. “Good, keep her distracted, I have an idea. let me know where she is.” “Roger that, she’s just turned onto the alley way connecting thirty second and thirty fourth.” They were several blocks away, but at Indigo’s speed, that hardly mattered. String lined up a shot and fired a pulse of light at the woman. She dodged the minor explosion and made a ninety degree turn onto the city street. String swooped around to follow.
He fired more shots in her direction, hoping to hit her and possibly wind her, but she was too fast, as if she could see the blasts coming. Which indeed she could. Even a blast moving at light speed only appeared to be moving as fast as a tennis serve to her, giving her plenty of time to move out of its way.
“We’re turning on forty eighth. Be careful , I think she’s headed right toward you.” Indigo sped toward where she’d left Carbon. She pulled out a long bladed knife and grinned evilly to herself. Let the freak in the air look on in horror as she put this blade through his friend. She was two blocks away from the broken dumpster; another blast of energy hit some trash cans to her right. She ramped up her speed and glanced up at String Theory. “Carbon, careful, she’s headed right toward you!” he shouted.
Indigo looked back the way she was going, too late to realize that Carbon had relocated. Using String’s directions, she’d moved one alley down. As she heard the high pitch whine of the approaching woman, she swung her carbon-black katana out around the wall. Indigo, travelling several times faster than the speed of sound, hit the sharper-than-razor edged blade with the force of a freight train. Unfortunately for her, she was made of flesh and blood.
Carbon’s blade was wrenched from her hands by the impact, which sent it spinning off into the alleyway with such force that it cut a six foot gouge through another steel dumpster before burying itself into the brick wall behind. Carbon was thrown aside, her wrist and shoulder dislocated and a scapula cracked as she crashed onto the asphalt ground.
Poor Indigo fared far worse. Her legs skidded across the ground for several blocks as they lost momentum. The upper half tumbled backward through the air in a gentle arc for over a hundred feet, the momentum spilling her insides out before she slammed unceremoniously to the alleyway, dead long before she’d stopped moving.
String landed not far away from Carbon, who was already standing and going for her sword. He looked down the alleyway at his friend’s work. “Nice job. That’s disgusting.” Carbon merely shrugged and sheathed her sword. “I only hope that little idiot didn’t cost us too much time.”
Carbon crawled into the building through a cracked window, then quietly made her way into the basement parking garage. String Theory was cloaked as a wisp of air and circling the building, scanning it for any signs of life or the telltale chemical signals of a bomb.
Carbon was slowly picking her way between empty cars, keeping low so as to not be seen when she heard several men exit an elevator maybe twenty feet away. She dropped to all fours and slowly crawled under a nearby pickup truck. The men were talking while crawling into the vans she’d seen before. “How much time do we have?” One asked.
There was a short period of silence, then another voice said “they are giving us twenty minutes to reach minimum safe distance. If we take longer, then we are out of luck, and have to hope for the best.” There was a general sigh. The words “Minimum safe distance” were particularly alarming to Carbon. She needed to get back in touch with String and let him know things were about to get much much worse.
She backed out from under the truck and scanned the area for a vent she could crawl into. Nothing. She didn’t want to go back into the building the way she came because that meant walking right across where the men were waiting in the van. Carbon nulled over her options. Time was running out, and if her assumptions were correct, these men were fixing to detonate a nuclear weapon in the heart of the city.
She frantically looked around for some way to get out of the building so she could tell String Theory he needed to be scanning for low level radiation, but there was no way around the throng of men. Maybe she could crawl by… She thought, but then one stepped out.
“You gonna smoke?” asked the man behind the driver’s wheel. The man who stepped out turned and said “Yeah, if we don’t make it out of here, cancer’s the least of our worries. That nuke’s gonna wipe out half the city. And what Rat-man’s gonna do to the rest…” Then he shuddered. That was it; there was no time to waste.
She stood up and drew her sword, then walked around the truck into full view of the men. “This is your one chance; leave now and you’ll likely live through today.” The man with the cigarette reached for his gun. Carbon dove into a roll straight toward him and when she came up, so did her sword. The man had unholstered a pistol and was raising it to shoot when her sword took his hand off. He gasped in pain, but Carbon cut across with her return swipe and cleaved the top of his head off.
The driver leaped out the other side of the van, and the sliding door on the side started to open. She stabbed straight through the door, and heard a scream on the other side. The driver ran around and fired a shotgun at her. The round missed, and Carbon placed her hand on the side of the van and using the “sticky” gloves, flipped onto its roof. Judging by where the screaming came from, she judged right about where the man inside was and drove her sword straight through the top of the van. His screaming stopped, the tip of the blade several inches into the top of his head.
The other vans were emptying, two more total. She now faced off against five armed men. If they had any idea what they were up against, they would have just run away. She slid down the driver’s side of the van after retracting the katana, then dove into the open door as two men fired sub machine guns at her. The driver lifted the shotgun to fire through the window at her, but she reversed direction impossibly fast and kicked the door open into his face. The shot went wide, and she pounced.
Before the man could recover, she impaled him through the heart. His shotgun fell to the ground. Another man fired several shots from a large caliber pistol. She withdrew the sword from the dead man and swatted aside two bullets, dodged another, and accepted a round in her thigh with a grunt. The other three men joined him and began firing pistols and submachine guns at her. Carbon kicked up the shotgun, caught it in her hand, and rolled around the front of the van. Before the men had a chance to regroup and follow her, she hit the floor.
One of the men was thinking, and began shooting through the van. The bullets ripped through the aluminum body and empty air. His surprise was genuine when Carbon fired the gun under the van and blew his left foot off. She fired two more rounds before the gun was spent, burying buckshot into the feet and ankles off all but one man. The sounds of anguished screams drowned out any background noise, making it impossible to hear the last man, and she could not see his feet under the van. She slowly stood and moved to the passenger side of it from the front. She used the shotgun to nudge the passenger door shut. The man had walked around and was hiding his feet behind the back wheel. He rushed up and aimed his gun in the vans cab with a loud “Aha!”
Carbon rolled around the front of the van and stabbed through the van door and both of the man’s lungs through his left armpit. He looked over slowly, a shocked pained expression on his face, before she retracted the sword and he fell to the floor, bleeding terribly and unable to move. She stalked around to the back of the van where one man was just crying staring at the stump where his foot had been, and the other two were struggling to get up on ruined feet.
“Who do you work for?” Carbon asked in a tone that promised pain if it wasn’t answered honestly. “Arachne’s syndicate.” gasped one man. The other told him to shut up, but he laughed. “Why not tell her? In a little while, this whole area’s going to be a radioactive hole in the ground. plus, you think she’s going to let us leave?”
Carbon shrugged. “He does have a point.” And with that she swung hard, decapitating both men in one strike. She then walked over to the other man and ended his suffering with a stab through his eye. Arachne, Carbon thought as she walked through the door into the main building. She knew the name. Arachne was the shadowy leader of a worldwide crime syndicate, an honest-to-God supervillain. Why would she and ratpack be setting up a nuke in the city? What possible gain was there?
Then it occurred to her, maybe there was no gain to be had.
String Theory was getting worried; he was finding no signs of bombs, and had not heard from Carbon for longer than he was comfortable with. He was about to fly down to the garage when her voice bled into his ear. “…tion! It’s a nuke, not a chemical bomb! Look for radiation!” “Oh crap.” He breathed. “Roger that, Gwen. get the hell out of here, there is nothing you can do but die if that thing goes off.”
The line was quiet, which meant she nodded and ran off. He switched his sensors from chemical detection to radiation, and the change was sudden and dramatic. Floors two, eight, ten, fifteen and twenty all had what appeared to be hundred kiloton devices, daisy chained together. String’s blood went cold. “Gwen, if you can hear me, get out of here. Get below ground and get the hell out of the city! There are five bombs!”
He switched to carbon steel and smashed through a window to get a look at one of the bombs.If he had time, he might be able to grab a few of them and take them where they would do no harm, but he didn’t think he could get all five, unless they weren’t timed…
Ratpack stood in a room at the top of the building. Inside the room were perhaps twenty thick metal boxes, designed to withstand incredible pressure and heat, but could be broken down with a simple button push from the inside.One other person stood in the room with him, one of Arachne’s goons. “Are you sure about this?” The man asked. “Of course.” Hissed the rat man. “Hurry, we must get in the boxes before the bomb goes off, or it’s no fun for us.”
The man shrugged and slid a magazine into his assault rifle, then chambered a round. “On the count of three, then.” Ratpack nodded. “One, two, three.” The last number was cut off as the man squeezed the trigger and fired an entire fifty round magazine into the small furry man, knocking him backward. He blinked and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. No longer was there one small man covered in fur, but there had to have been well over twenty.
“We told you.” They hissed as one. The man nodded dumbly. Ratpack grinned… The temptation to eat the man was almost overwhelming, and the team of them could easily overpower him. But they had a job to do, so ratpack and his clones began to get into the metal boxes and slam them shut, until all twenty were filled. Two clones remained.
They all shared Ratpack’s thoughts and memories up to the moment of their creation, so they knew he wanted to have the detonation dialed ahead. No sense in Ratpack being the only one blown up in the blast. They grinned evilly as the man pushed the button on the elevator and the doors closed. One of them picked up the timer and turned the timer’s clock back to less than a minute.
Carbon had heard String Theory and didn’t waste time replying. She bolted into a subway tunnel and ran with all speed down the side of the track. Right now, getting hit by a train was the least of her concerns. She could heal broken bones and burst organs, she could not un-evaporate however.
No trains came. She had no idea how far she had run in the dark, but she didn’t care. She knew these tunnels led to the outskirts of town, she just hoped she made it in time, or that String Theory had a trick up his sleeve to prevent the detonation.
String looked the bomb over; it was large, likely on purpose to make moving it difficult, but nothing he could not handle. He lifted the device, mindful of the LED display on it that indicated how much time was left. Ten minutes; that would be close, but there was a chance that he could either throw them a safe distance away, or even lob them up into the edge of the atmosphere. An EMP would be devastating, but better than an actual nuclear explosion. Somewhere in the back of his head he wondered why there was a need for a counter; no one was in the room and anyone who could see how much time was left was going to be dead very soon.
He started floating over toward the window when the screen suddenly changed; the countdown from 10:50 suddenly dialed down to ten seconds. “No fair” he breathed. String Theory was an experienced member of SEAL Team 6, an accomplished athlete, and possessed as strong a mind and body as any man ever born, but for a brief moment, he was frozen, dumbstruck.
He snapped out of it at five seconds. He lamented for a second that there was nothing he could do to save the people in the city. He couldn’t move even one bomb. As the chain reaction that triggered the fusion blast began, String Theory converted into pure light, and rode the outer edge of a nuclear blast.
To anyone viewing the building from the outside, it simply seemed to disappear into light. One moment, there was a tall, glittering tower of glass and steel, next a pillar of pure light. The glass and rooftop paraphernalia of the buildings nearby were blasted out as the shockwave rolled out at the speed of sound. The intense heat and pressure of the fireball that once was the city’s tallest building melted the massive steel frames and blew them over like a pillow fort.
The explosion flattened the center of the city while the debris it threw and intense heat of the rising mushroom cloud incinerated and crushed everything in a ring five miles across. Buss, charred cars, above ground trains all flew through the air like toys, crashing down on the outskirts of town, crushing houses and unfortunate people.
Near the corpse of the giant beast that String and Carbon had killed, Lightfoot was knocked from her feet by the weakened shockwave. Her prisoners were no longer interested in fighting, knowing now that the woman was far more powerful than they had given credit for, and they were also transfixed by the rising ball of white hot energy that had once been their beloved city.
Carbon was lucky. The blast did not reach underground, so the wall of fire she envisioned sweeping over her never came. However, the sudden seismic wave that shot past her knocked her down, and luck was on her side because as she fell to the side, a subway car, likely propelled by the force of the blast wave, shot past her like a bullet. There was a loud rumble, which she imagined was the sound of ruined buildings collapsing under their own weight.
She was on her feet again, running with all haste toward the end of the tunnel, hoping against hope that she was safely out of the center of the city and would not be buried alive in the aftermath.
The explosion threw the twenty metal boxes high into the air. The two Ratpack clones not in them were vaporized, while those in the boxes were crushed by a pressure wave capable of flattening a warship. They were scattered like shrapnel all over the landscape. Once in a freefall, the kinetic energy of the crushed boxes did its work. the Twenty Ratpack now numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The crushing impacts as they landed in the twisted wreckage of the city and its outskirts multiplied those hundreds of thousands into several millions.
A nation of sadistic, cannibalistic animal men rose from the burning landscape and descended upon the survivors.