Author's Note: Second chapter, and if you thought the first one was different then this one will surprise you even more. Enjoy!
Edit: Fixed some typos and added a proper title. Carry on!
Chapter 2 - Curiouser and Curiouser
Consciousness was not the slow, meandering process it usually was, waking up in a warm bed and being able to spend those first luxurious minutes adjusting to the return of awareness while deciding what to accomplish in the day to come. No, consciousness came rushing back like a slap to the face, coughing and spluttering as John realized he was half-face down in a pool of water, soaked through, dirty, and feeling like he'd been through the spin cycle of a washing machine. When the worst of the liquid was out of his lungs he sat up, staring around in undisguised confusion.
A storm drain – a common enough sight around the city – though what he was doing in one was more than his jostled brain could even try and guess. The water was only two or three inches deep, not quite enough to drown in thankfully, and littered with street trash, the occasional ruined tire, and probably a dead rat or two. He dried valiantly not to think of how much of it had gone into his mouth, but that led him back to the equally unpleasant question of what he was even doing there in the first place.
He remembered...not a lot. Something about a dark, dusty building and Bobby complaining and Cooper sneezing.…
He staggered to his feet, invigorated now that he'd realized the missing element in this equation. His brothers. Suddenly finding them was his highest priority even if he didn't quite remember why, nor did he have any certainty that they would even be here...wherever 'here' was.
"Cooper?" he called out, startled at how scratchy and hoarse his voice sounded. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Bobby! Clint!"
A weak groan answered his call, and he staggered unsteadily towards its source. A pile of debris he'd initially dismissed as just more rubbish shifted slightly and groaned again, and then Bobby's head rose into view. Water dripped from the tips of his hair which had lost most of its gelled style, and he regarded John with blinking uncertainty.
"What time is it?" The question popped out of Bobby's mouth instinctively, as if he were oversleeping on a school day. John would have found it funny under any other circumstances.
"Wake up bro, we've got a problem." Major understatement, but there was no point in flying into immediate panic if it could be avoided. He did his best not to think of how big a problem it was starting to look like. A domino effect of one hysterical thought after another was not going to help them.
From the looks of things, Bobby didn't seem to be any more informed than he. "What's going on?"
"I don't know, but we need to find Clint and Cooper."
There was an uptight pause where it looked like Bobby was going to object solely on principle, but the innate wrongness of the whole situation was more pressing. He took John's proffered hand graciously, letting himself be hauled up, and immediately winced.
"Ouch." He rubbed his bare arms, fingers testing pressure against the skin. "Hurts."
John knew the feeling. Like a whole body ache that wasn't quite strong enough to be crippling, but hovered just above being a simple annoyance. It wasn't enough to deter him though. "Let's go."
Slogging through the drain wasn't pleasant. The uncomfortably squishing of waterlogged shoes, the stench nearly unbearable, and underneath it was the fear. Thankfully they didn't have to journey too far. A deceptive turn in the train had him nearly tripping over Clint's prone body, and Cooper was only a short distance away, just starting to wake up. By unspoken agreement John went to kneel at Coop's side and Bobby nudged Clint disdainfully with the toe of his sneaker.
"If you're dead I'm not lugging your carcass out of here."
Clint rolled over, grumbling, "Like you could even carry me with that ego of yours weighing you down." He sat up abruptly, gagging. "Oh geeze. What reeks?"
"You," Bobby responded automatically, taking a step back just in case Clint's stomach still had anything in it. Sure, the drain wasn't exactly forest fresh, but it wasn't that bad. "Move it Clint, I'm not waiting around so you can get a few more minutes of shut eye."
Wheezing and trying to filter out the smell using his sleeve, Clint staggered laboriously to his feet. "Where are we?"
"Dunno. Storm drain?" Bobby shrugged. "Guess we better hope it's not an active one."
John glanced around uneasily. The innocent comment had triggered something in the back of his mind, and the relief he'd felt at seeing them all safe and together suddenly evaporated. There was a prickling sensation just on the edges of his senses, and it was almost like a premonition. Dangercomingnow! "We need to go."
"Well yeah, if anyone finds out I spent a weekend in a gutter with my brothers my social life is ruin-"
"Now!" He didn't mean it to come out so harsh but there was no time.
"What's wrong?" Cooper asked, swaying unsteadily in place. John quickly slipped under his youngest brother's arm, offering what little support he could if it would only get them moving quicker.
"Something's coming," John muttered distractedly, missing the slightly incredulous look the other three exchanged. "How do we get out of this thing?"
The walls were sharply sloped, near impossibly to climb especially since none of them were at their best. The sun was low enough to be casting long shadows and a fierce glare over everything, but a dim shape further down the drain caught Clint's attention. "Is that a ladder?" Hard to tell at this distance, but a dim hope was better than none.
"Let's go for it," John said, setting off with Coop at a hobble while the other two ambled slowly along behind.
"Has he lost it or what?" Bobby asked quietly, but Clint wasn't paying attention.
He cocked his head to the side, listening intently. "Do you hear something?"
The snappish retort died on Bobby's lips. He did hear something. A crashing, splashing sound, like the ocean except not nearly as calm.…
Water. Lots of water. Suddenly running to catch up with John seemed like a very good idea.
"You had to make that comment about it being an active drain," Clint snarled, pushing his exhausted muscles to their limit. Every so often, the drains needed to be cleansed to get rid of the garbage and to stop the stench from building up. There were supposed to be fences and guards to keep the public out, so how they'd made it past that and ended up in the drain in the first place was a mystery.
"How was I supposed to know?"
They reached the base of the ladder just as Cooper was being helped onto the first rung. The water was definitely coming their way.
"Climb fast little bro," Bobby urged, following as closely as humanly possibly.
"You next," John ordered Clint, and there was no arguing with him when he used that tone. Coop had just reached the top – only twelve feet above them but it seemed like a mile – and was reaching back to help Bobby.
John was still at the bottom when the first of the water came gushing past. The swirling wave nearly swept him off his feet, swelling to knee height before he could even react. He jumped on the ladder, barely able to keep his balance at the wave tried to carry him away. It was cold, shockingly so, and only panic stopped his limbs from clenching up involuntarily. The statistical number of people who accidentally drowned in the storm drains each year rose persistently to the front of his mind. He was at least grateful to see Clint's heels disappearing over the edge of the drain.
It was a race, himself against the water, but unfortunately the water was winning. The higher it rose, the harder it was for him to keep going upward, and by the time it came up to his chest he knew he had lost. Only sheer persistence kept him clinging to the slippery metal, but even that was failing. He was going to have to let go.
Seconds that seemed like frozen years ticked by, enough time to remember the unpleasant drone of his last marine biology lecturer who had harped on about how ill suited humans were for water compared to the other creatures of the deep, when suddenly he felt a new force pulling at his wrists. One- Two- Three pairs of hands all reaching down to claw desperately at his skin and clothes, tearing him out of the water's chilly embrace.
He ignored the new pain of the scratches he received, kicking against the rushing tide and trying to find purchase against the wall, and finally he was free. His brothers pulled him over the edge, gasping and shaking, all freshly soaked. The water continued on its merry way, now harmless and forever ignorant.
A cursory glance around revealed no familiar streets. The buildings were a rusty red color, and their uniform windows stared out like apathetic eyes. It was unsettlingly desolate, not a person in sight, but in Fission City a traffic jam was never far away and the angry blaring of horns could be heard in the distance.
"So what do we do now?" Cooper asked, sweeping hair back from his eyes, suddenly noticing his cap was missing. He couldn't remember if he'd even had it in the drain or not, but then the rush to get out had stamped out every other thought.
John had squeezed the worst of the water from his outer shirt, and he re-buttoned it with a steely look in his eyes. "We turn out our pockets and hope someone's got a quarter. We need to find out what's going on."
It figured; the moment he looked away from the phone it decided to ring, making him jump half a foot. He fumbled as he answered it, almost dropping it before bringing it up to his ear. "Lena's desk, Bends speaking."
"Bends?" The man in question sagged in relief at John's voice.
"Oh man, you guys are in so much trouble. Lena was about to call the police when she found out you guys didn't come home last night." He rifled through the baggy pockets of his shorts, looking for his beeper. He couldn't wait to start on the I-told-you-so's when she found out they were all okay. "Seriously, tell your dad to call into the office already. I'm sure they'd be firing him if he wasn't the best teacher they had, and Paradigm's been really pissed all day-"
"Dad?" John sounded distant, confused. "You mean he's not there?"
Bends paused awkwardly. "Uh, no. You guys were supposed to meet him yesterday, remember?"
There was a profound silence on the other end, followed by a babble of conversation. If he listened intently, Bends could make out the voices of the rest of the brothers.
"Dad? No way. He should have been working, right?"
"I don't remember. I don't think we saw him."
"Maybe we should have called home instead."
Bends thought he should interrupt at that point. "Lena's been calling your house every hour. Your dad's been missing from work for two days now." He had the distinct feeling that his news was a surprise when it shouldn't have been. "What happened to you anyway? Where are you?"
"Uh…" Lena's desk was even more of a mess than usual today, but a brief search dug up a pen and a scrap of paper while John looked for landmarks. "Corner of Varity and Fourth, Industrial district. Can you come pick us up? Something happened..." John didn't quite seem to know how to finish his own sentence.
"Varity and Forth? I'll be right there." It wouldn't be the first time he had to fish the boys out of trouble, but this time had an unpleasant feel to it. He scribbled a quick note to leave on Lena's desk just in case he couldn't reach her by other means.
"Be quick," John asked bleakly, and no sooner had Bends put down the phone he was searching for his keys with one hand and the elusive beeper with the other. He broke out of the office at a jog, not bothering to lock the door behind him. Someone else could take care of it. This was a family emergency; didn't matter to him if the Boltons were blood relations or not.
From the deepest recesses of his pockets he finally found what he was looking for, but him moment of victory was cut short when he rounded a corner and slammed into a student with an armful of books. Fast reflexes saved him from falling, but not from the painful impact. The girl crashed to the floor, her possessions scattering. A few people turned to stare. Somebody laughed.
He offered her a sheepish smile. "Sorry. In a hurry."
She was vaguely familiar. Plain face, strawberry blond hair; he thought he remembered seeing her hanging around the library a lot but she'd never been an especially friendly sort and he couldn't think of a name to go with the face. Normally he'd be more apologetic, but he couldn't stay to help her up even as she regarded the mess with unmasked despair. He trotted away, too absorbed with sending a message to Lena to notice the venomous glare she shot at his retreating back.
John was still soaked and his brothers weren't much dryer, making it unpleasantly cold to wait out on the street, so they'd retreated down a small alleyway to at least get them out of the brunt of the wind. John waited on the edge nervously, looking out for Bends's distinctive van. Clint was pacing restlessly, stopping every so often as if he wanted to say something, before apparently deciding otherwise and resuming the cycle. Bobby and Coop were hunkered down, shoulder to shoulder, conserving what little heat they had.
The silence was torture. Cooper looked morose. "What happened to us?"
Bobby didn't have an answer, but anything was better than the silence. "I remember being at school yesterday. I asked the new girl out. Michelle."
"What did you bribe her with to make her say yes?" Clint asked reflexively, before halting again. "I just…arrg!" He punched the nearest wall. It mustn't have been very sturdy because a few hairline cracks appeared in the masonry. "I can't remember a thing. None of it."
"It's like amnesia," Cooper offered, hands around his knees. "Doesn't that only happen if you hit your head?"
"Or if something really bad happens," Bobby said. "Mental trauma. Saw it in a movie."
"How authentically reliable."
"So what then, genius? What's your greater-than-thou theory?"
Clint glared, but said nothing. He didn't have one. Unlike the others he couldn't even remember doing anything yesterday. Total blank.
"And Dad's missing too," Cooper said uncertainly. They'd been toeing around the issue since the phone call. "Do you think something happened to him?"
"No way." Bobby sounded so sure, brushing it off with certainty. "I bet when Lena calls home again he'll be there. Or maybe he's looking for us."
John couldn't think. All he could hear was Bends uncertain voice. "You guys were supposed to meet him yesterday, remember?"
He did remember now. He remembered a white building with an odd logo. The words were right on the tip of his tongue so he spoke them. "He said he wanted to meet us at the old Environmental Research Center."
Bobby made a face. "Why there? Didn't they close that place down, like, years ago?"
John swayed slightly in place, Bobby flinched in surprise. "Oh wow. Deja-vu."
Clint blinked. "Huh?"
John shook his head. "Never mind. But we did go there, I think. Looked like someone else had bought the place."
Cooper looked hopeful. "Was Dad there?"
"...I don't know." John looked away. It was like his mind refused to show him anything that happened after crossing the doorway into that darkness. Maybe Bobby was right about the mental trauma. Maybe he didn't want to remember. If they'd ended up in a storm drain, it couldn't have been anything good.
He rubbed his arms again. It was more than just the cold. His hands ached, right down to the bones. He was starving too, with the kind of hollow gnawing in his belly he hadn't felt since that camping trip when they'd run out of food a day early. He really hoped Bends had something edible with him.
He actually heard Bends arrival before he saw it. His van had a peculiar, purring motor that wasn't quite like anything else John had ever known. He knew Bends had a particular flair for mechanics, and the engine was probably something he'd tweaked to perfection. It certainly ran well for something that looked like it had been preserved none-too-carefully since the '80s.
"Man. Took him long enough," Clint said. Unreasonably, maybe, but he and Bends had been friends the longest and companionable grumbling was the usual. The two of them even owned a small business – something Clint had proven to be remarkably proficient at despite his usual lack of motivation for anything resembling real work. Apparently running the comic book store didn't count, except when it required him to be up before midday.
Bobby and Cooper hobbled after him, not quite sure who was supporting who at this stage as the van rolled to a neat stop on the curb. Bends leaned out the window, looking disturbed. "Man, you guys have had it rough. And why are you wet?"
"Long story," John groaned. "Don't suppose you have some towels?"
This was not as strange a question as it may have seemed. Bends believed in coming prepared, and all manner of strange things could be found in his possession at any given time.
"Hmm…try the in back…wait a second, I'll just look."
The back of the van had enough room to fit about seven people comfortably, but was piled with boxes of tools and odds and ends that the brothers had to pick their way past to get to the chairs. A hasty search dug up a stack of old blankets - musty smelling and scratchy but better than nothing – for John to dry himself on while the others used them to ward off the chill.
Bends looked at them all in stark bewilderment. "So what happened? You don't need to go to the hospital do you?"
The ache was still present but bearable, and his brothers were shaking their heads. "No." He had a thought. "But could you take us to the Environmental Research Center?"
Bends rained an eyebrow. "Isn't that where you were meeting Dr. Bolton?"
"It was…" Memory still sternly refused to give up anything beyond that doorway. "But I don't think we're going to get any real answers until we go back there."
Bends gave them each a look, unreadable behind his ever present sunglasses, but eventually nodded his acquiesce. "Alright, but you guys had better explain on the way. I'll need something half-credible to run past Lena when we get back or we'll get an earful. You know how she is."
John smiled tiredly. He did know. "Done."
They hit their first snag before even getting into the compound. The gate was locked. Clint rattled it in frustration. "No way. This was open before."
Bends looked towards the building. "You sure? This place still looks like it's closed down."
"It doesn't on the inside," Bobby told him. "It's all brand new."
Bobby rubbed his head. "Sorta."
Now that the building was back in front of him, things were starting to come back. Leaving school, the race…but then there were a few things that just weren't making sense. Eyes swimming in the dark, test tubes of candy colored liquids, and needles. Bobby shuddered at the thought. He hated those.
"There's got to be some way in," John said determinedly, ad it was obvious they weren't going to leave until they'd at least looked inside. They began walking the perimeter of the fence line with Bends followed more slowly behind. It wasn't like he thought they were making it all up, but four separate cases of amnesia at the same time? A mysterious building that was supposed to be empty? Waking up in a storm drain? The Bolton family had always been a little on the crazy side, one of the reasons he liked them so much, but this was all a little too weird. He really wished he had Lena to back him up on this one, but in the meantime he was willing to follow the brothers and help them do whatever they needed to.
Their solution wasn't too far away. They found a small tear in the links, not quite enough to slip through, but a start. Bends had already resigned himself to the idea that they were probably going to be breaking and entering before the day was through. "I have some wire cutters back in the van," he offered.
That apparently wasn't fast enough for Cooper, who simply grabbed the fence and pulled. The metal tore like aluminum foil, like he wasn't making any effort at all, and in a moment they had a hole big enough to climb through. Bends stared, peering over the rims of his shades to make sure he just saw that correctly. "Or you could do that."
"Score one for Coop," Bobby cheered, looking around to make sure no one else was around before ducking lithely though the gap. Cooper just shrugged with a small smile and followed him.
Bends was last. Experimentally he tried to bend one of the wires. It was stiff and sturdy, resisting his effort. He certainly couldn't have broken it with just his own strength. More weirdness.
They scuttled across the yard to the side of the building, hiding in its shadow. It was starting to get dark but there was no point in taking chances. Bends didn't fancy trying to explain this little endeavor to the police. "Well I don't think we'll be getting though the front door," he said lightly. "So what next?"
An open window was their savior. Clint gestured. "Boost me up."
Copper and John did so, needing to push him above shoulder height to reach it. He scrabbled dangerously, pulling himself over the window's edge while the others winced at the noise and looked around anxiously. Finally he made it, and there was a tense silence while they waited for him to orient himself. Eventually his head reappeared. "All clear."
It was absurdly like the teamwork games they liked to play on school camps. They took turns playing human pyramid until everyone but Bobby and John were inside. The elder looked at his brother. "You're lighter, Bob. You're going last."
"Oh thanks," Bobby complained, meaning he'd have to boost John himself, but did so with good natured grumbling. He was soon left alone on the ground, staring up at Clint's broad smirk. "Now what?"
"Jump," Clint suggested, grinning wider.
Bobby gave him a flat look. "You're kidding." It was nearly twice his height straight up.
"Nope. You don't wanna be stuck out there, do you?" Which was a lie. John was already looking for a rope or something similar to help the last brother up, but Bobby couldn't know that.
He raged quietly, kicking at the dirt. "Goddamnit…" But it was worth at least one shot. Clint leaned out over the edge offering a hand, and Bobby gave himself space for a small run up. He kicked off the wall for extra lift, expecting to maybe touch the tips of Clint's fingers before falling back down-
Clint caught him by both elbows and after a short battle against gravity managed to hold him steady. They were nearly nose to nose. Bobby could almost have reached the sill by himself, and they shared a silent look. Whoa.
Clint's smile was faintly admiring. "That was on hell of a jump."
"Yeah." It was an unreal jump. Bobby stared down, trying to gauge the distance. Maybe it wasn't as far as he'd first thought. "When I get back to school, I'm so trying out for the high jump team."
Clint snorted dismissively, hauling him inside. Bends looked intrigued, and John was already hovering impatiently at the end of the corridor. The hall they were in was empty and uninteresting, and he could practically feel the pull of promised answers from inside. "Let's go."
The building was dark, no windows or electricity, but there was just enough light to see by after their eyes adjusted. The atmosphere was oppressive.
"So does any of this look familiar to you guys?" Bends asked finally. They were hardly a stealthy group, and it didn't seem like a bit of extra noise was going to hurt.
"Not here, specifically," John said quietly. "We might have been in a corridor like this one though."
They stopped at a junction. Two passages lead in different direction, and there was a stairwell going down. Cooper looked between their options. "Should we split up?"
"You obviously don't watch enough horror movies," Bends muttered, pulling Cooper and Clint closer warningly. "Never split up in the strange building. That's when the axe murder comes after you."
"Can you not say that?" Bobby asked plaintively. The building was already giving him bad vibes. It was a strange mix of facing the unknown and the implacable certainty that he did know what was out there, and he knew enough to fear it.
"We need to go down," John said abruptly, doing so without waiting for the arguments. His head was tilted slightly, as though he was following some kind of sound only he could hear. The other four exchanged a dubious look before following.
"Makes sense, I guess," Cooper observed. "If we came in through the front the first time we would have been down on the first floor."
Downstairs was equally unfamiliar though, but John walked quickly, guided by some indeterminable sense or maybe just whim. Bobby couldn't tell, but natural caution didn't like the idea of matching his pace. "Hey, slow down already would you?"
John's distracted voice drifted back. "We're almost there."
"Almost where?" Bends questioned, but he was shortly answered by the sight of a door in front of them.
John stopped in front of it, nodding in a satisfied manner. "This is it."
"What?" But the other brothers were in agreement.
"It leads down into the lab," Bobby told him.
Bends frowned uncertainly. "What lab? You didn't mention it before."
"Didn't remember," Clint said, sounding uncharacteristically hesitant.
"Are you going to open it?" Bends questioned when no one made a move, now intensely curious. This had to be what they were here for.
"I guess." John didn't want to. Now that they'd come this far he suddenly wished they hadn't, but there were answers behind this door, and maybe their father as well. He pressed the button and was momentarily dazzled by the fresh light pouring outward. The lab was still lit exactly how he'd remembered it. This time they were entering at a different angle, but the place reeked of familiarity and something a bit more jarring. Something dangerous.
Driven by impulse, Bobby took lead and darted between the long lab tables. "We were definitely here. I remember spilling acid on the floor, see?"
The crowded around, in near awe of the scorch mark. Blindsided by a sudden memory, John reached into his jacket pocket. His fingers instantly found the think sheet of paper he'd taken from the table right before the acid incident. It was a bit crinkled at the bottom where water had soaked it, but otherwise intact.
"What about the tanks?" Clint asked suddenly. "We looked at those, remember?"
It was an odd journey of self discovery, retracing their footsteps to the back of the room. The tanks were just as imposing as John remembered, but now they stood empty.
"What do you think they kept in here?" Bends asked, mystified.
"Sharks," Cooper told him, sounding nearly as surprised to say it as Bends was to hear it.
"Yep. There were four of them."
Bends shook his head. "Freaky." He looked around. "So what are we looking for?"
"I don't know," John said, musing on the probem. "We were standing here…Bobby was over there a bit more…"
"And everything went black," Clint offered helpfully.
Bends blinked. "What? Like you passed out?"
"No. The lights went off, I think."
"Alright, so then what?"
There was no answer. All four brothers went quiet in deep thought, but memory was frustratingly fleeting after having diverged its secrets up until that point.
John closed his eyes, trying to remember the way it had felt, standing in the dark, but that strange sound was messing with his concentration again. Like a silent bell ringing from just beyond this room. He glanced around in frustration and noticed something new; an unmarked door. The noise was coming from just beyond there.
"Does anyone remember going through there?" he asked, pointing. He was met by three blank stares and Bends' more intrigued one. "Well it's a place to start."
He didn't feel that same sense of recognition at this door, but the room beyond it was a different story.
There were four tables, neatly lined up in a row. Tables with thick straps, and a neat row of empty needles beside each that he couldn't stop staring at in horror because there was something he nearly remembered that just-
He took an unthinking step backwards, right into Clint who scowled. "Hey, what's the problem?"
Cooper stuck his head in, looking around. "What do you think?"
"Don't know. Let's look around for a bit." The others brushed past him but John couldn't seem to find his voice. The ringing in his ears was almost deafening.
They spread out, Bends drifting predictably over to the computers. "This hardware's pretty fancy. Like the stuff we have at the Uni labs…Hey wait!" They regarded him oddly until he pulled one of the screens sideways to reveal a sticker. "Property of Fission City University: Genetic Research Department. This is one of ours."
"Stolen?" Clint asked, coming to look.
Bends readjusted his headband, frowning. "I hadn't heard anything, but maybe." He looked suddenly concerned. "Your dad was supposed to be here. You don't think-"
"No way," Clint said venomously, but he looked disturbed.
"And check this out," Cooper said, proffering his discovery from behind the last table. "This is the cap I was wearing yesterday. That means we must have been in here, right?"
"You sure it's the same one?" Bobby asked. It wasn't like he doubted it, but suddenly he wanted to.
Cooper shrugged, putting it on and considering. "Fits perfectly."
It was like putting together a puzzle with only half the pieces, but any further contemplation was interrupted by a sniggering whispery noise, like the dangerous hiss of a snake. It was horribly familiar to the brothers, bringing back that petrifying moment of being trapped in the dark. John saw it first. "Up there!"
Unlike the rest of the building, this room was lit almost too brightly for comfort, and thus there wasn't even a shadow to hide the gruesome creature from sight. It was vaguely humanoid, but every limb was built from pure, corded muscle, and its eyes were perfectly round and dark; like a fish. It had scales like a fish too; aqua green, and a short sail that crested the top of its head and ran down the length of its spine. Instead of a nose it possessed a long, bone-like spear. It was also undeniably laughing at them, intelligence glittering in its eyes.
"Well, well, look at what we have here. Looks like the failures survived after all." Its voice was soft but harsh, dragging long on the letter 's'. It bared its teeth in what might have been a grin, showing neat rows of wicked fangs. "Guess we'll have to take care of that before the Doctor comes back."
It jumped down from the observation deck above, the impact of its weight rippling through the floor. John could only think of one word. "Run!"
It was mindless chaos as they scattered back through the huge lab. John ran for the first exit he could see, another doorway on the other side of the tanks, but it wasn't until he was in another unremarkable hallway that he realized he'd lost everyone except Bends. He almost slowed, but Bends urged him onwards. "Don't stop! They went the other way, and I think it's chasing us!"
It was. Even if John couldn't hear the pounding of its taloned feet over his own ragged breathing, that little bell was ringing again, informing him that something was coming up fast behind them. They turned down a number of sharp corners, picking their path at random, and John was forced to slow as the ever-present ache in his body suddenly intensified to agony.
"Wait," he gasped, staggering against the wall. He'd noticed it had gotten worse whenever he was feeling nervous, and in the face of full blown fear it was terrible. He doubled over, barely able to see through it. The only consolation was that the siren in his mind had grown quieter. The creature hadn't figured out where they'd gone yet, and at the moment it wasn't getting any closer.
"Dude, we have to keep going," Bends whispered urgently.
"Can't. Hurts." He was no stranger to pain, but this was different. It was like there was something inside him, clawing its way along his skeleton, trying to find a way out. He tried to muffle a cry of pain but failed, and all at once the noise in his head stilled for a second, and then started coming closer.
"Alright, lean on me." Bends pulled John's arm over his shoulder, having to support most of the other man's weight. They limped onwards, but even without the aid of John's uncanny sense, Bends knew it was catching up to them. The best they could hope for was a decent place to hide, but the corridor was empty, and as they turned the next corner they were faced with a dead end.
Bends stared at it, trying to will a door or a window into existence. Maybe there was time to go back and try another way? He turned and couldn't hold in a yelp at the sight of a huge shadow projected across the floor. The creature was here.
It turned the corner with deliberate slowness, sniffing the air like a dog. When it caught sight of the two of them its lips twisted into a gruesome smile. "So much for hide and seek. Looks like I found you."
John was still hunched in pain, which was worrying but not quite as immediate as the hulking monster in front of them. Bends noticed, absurdly, that it was actually wearing clothing; some kind of formfitting body suit imprinted with an unknown logo that looked like a skeletal fish.
A weapon would have felt really good in his hands right now, but the most he could do was stand protectively in front of John, shaking slightly with the force of adrenalin running through his veins. Assuming it didn't just knock his head from his shoulders instantly, maybe he could land a hit on it, find a weak point, maybe even get past it. If he left John and went by himself-
No. That was out of the question. Options, he needed more options!
John suddenly arched in agony. The creature seemed to find this entertaining. "He shouldn't have survived this long, much less come back. Failed experiments should know their place."
"John?" Bends asked worriedly, putting a hand on the fallen man's shoulder. "You need to get up man, we-Yaah!"
The skin on John's arm suddenly darkened dramatically, the deep blue color blooming like a bruise that quickly spread to the rest of his body. Muscles twitched and pulsed, almost like they were growing, and Bends couldn't help but take a horrified step backwards even if it took him closer to the creature. What was happening?
Watching with bright, interested eyes, the creature's reaction was much different. "Or perhaps he's not a failure after all."
The sharp undertones of malevolence made Bends turn in spite of his horrified fascination as John seemed to...change. The creature's thick taloned claws twitched eagerly and as it towered over him, Bends realized that his desperate hopes for being able to hurt it were for nothing. Whatever was happening, it seemed to understand, and it was far from being disappointed or worried.
"Of course, you still aren't needed," it told Bends conversationally. "Maybe if he asks me nicely you can be his first kill."
It was hard to say if it was when his heart stopped, or if it was when the hand clamped down forcefully on his shoulder, gripping with unprecedented strength that would undoubtedly leave marks. Out of the corner of his vision he saw…it had to be John, but he only looked remotely human now. Bends didn't have time to catalog the differences. His vision was filled with hungry, watchful eyes and rows of teeth like shards of broken glass. Even if he wasn't being held steady he wouldn't have been able to move. Running would only make it worse, if that were even possible at this point. Either way, he knew he was already dead, and he faintly hoped that John would remember him well enough to make it quick.
One day later…
It was eerily quiet on the streets. Paradigm had known, logically, that the area had been evacuated, but it wasn't until the sound of the gawkers had faded into the background that he could really appreciate how much noise was wasted by the average human being. There weren't even any stray animals lurking about. They'd probably all been spooked by the scent of unnatural predators in the air.
The Boltons were definitely here. Not huddling and scared like the Media was trying to portray them – Paradigm doubted they were human enough for that any more – but vigilant and vengeful. They were everything that should be rightfully feared; insanely strong, inhumanly fast, and smart; enough that they knew better than to attack front on. No, they were hiding in the shadows, preying on anyone who drifted too far from the main group. He suspected he'd lost nearly half his people by now, and had to touch the comforting additions to his arsenal, reminding himself that he had not come unprepared for this confrontation.
It was difficult to track them. The only trail they left was in bodies, and even the police dogs refused to enter the area to follow their scent. Numerous sighting had indicted the brothers were hiding in the buildings, sometimes using the sewers to move around so the helicopters above couldn't follow them. Despite being so obviously out of place, they knew what they were doing.
He heard shots being fired recklessly from the next street, accompanied by cries of pain and thoughtless shouting.
"He's over here! Shoot him!"
"Man down! It's too fast-"
"We need backup!"
Without thinking he was already running, automatically taking note of the ladder leading upwards in the alley, along with the dumpster that could provide decent cover if he needed it.
By the time he arrived, it was already over. Men lay crumpled on the streets, most of their weapons lost or destroyed, and their opponent was already slinking back into the darkness, trying to withdraw. Paradigm wasn't about to let it go quietly, and in a smooth, practiced motion he drew his gun and fired a shot. The tazer bullet impacted on the creature's skin, and the mutant roared in surprise and pain. After a moment it seemed to be able to shrug off the damage, and it twisted to find the cause.
Doctor Luther Paradigm was not hiding, and the creature that had once been John Bolton seemed to recognize him.
Paradigm crooked a finger. "Come on then."
Whether John heard him or was simply attacking by instinct, it was hard to say, but the effect was the same, and rather than waste another shot Paradigm sprinted back into the alleyway and made for the fire-escape. Once upon a time, he'd been in the military, and years of nearly forgotten training had him climbing quickly and surely. Even so, he nearly lost a leg as the dumpster was all but thrown in his direction, twisting the bottom of the ladder into a horrific parody of a half-amputated limb.
There wasn't time to stop. The moment he reached the stairs he was running, but the mutant was close behind and not necessarily limited to the ordinary rout. Paradigm heard metal squealing in protest and felt the whole frame jar under him as it tried to support the weight of the creature going up the side of the escape, John having both the strength and reach to simply climb from level to level instead of walk the roundabout route. John was tiring though, and Paradigm almost smiled. That was exactly what he wanted.
He managed to reach the roof first, hastily putting some distance between them. The area was wide and flat, with no cover which meant his opponent wouldn't have anything to throw this time. That was a bonus. He waited, and surely enough, John appeared, heaving himself over the edge, panting and weary. Above them the clouds finally gave in to what they'd been threatening all evening, and rain began pouring down. Neither combatant noticed.
Everything was in readiness. On the street there was too much of a chance that John would simply run if he thought he might lose. Up here, it wasn't Paradigm who would be trapped, and when John fell, his brothers would be quick to follow. Cut off the head and the body stops moving…though not in the literal sense. This was a mission of mercy, after all. It was his last intention to kill the boy.
He pulled out another pistol, facing down the mutated being that had once been a young man. "Enough damage has been done. It's time to end this, Monster."
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