Author's Note: Finally finished! Sorry for the long wait.
Chapter 6 - Goliath was a Mountain...
It was a horrible, beautiful, two-faced revelation of bafflement and wonder. That Paradigm was still alive came as a sour disappointment, though considering how many unanswered questions still remained, it might have a few upsides, the first of which was patently obvious in the winning smile the Doctor displayed for the cameras.
A smile with perfectly ordinary, unsharpened teeth in a face that was unpleasantly familiar, but nonetheless it led to one conclusion.
"There is a cure!"
Hope was an ache nearly too sweet to bear. "It has to be," Jab confirmed enthusiastically to Bends. "I saw his face, man. The stuff nightmares are made of. But ten minutes after we left, every cop and camera in the city showed up and there he was giving his statement. He must have had it right there."
"Well if he did, we'll find it," Ripster said, sitting in front of their mismatched computer. The moment they'd gotten back with the disk of Paradigm's copied hard drive, Bends had worked around the clock to have it up and running. Though it had been stripped down to the bare essentials it was enough to get a look at what they'd stolen, only to find that it was encrypted with the most paradoxical algorithm Bends had ever seen. He had looked at it for five minutes before giving up. His specialty was hardware; Rip was the software genius, and was currently proving it. Now it only looked like it would take them ten years to decode it all, instead of ten decades.
"I mean, you had to figure he had one, right?" said Streex, looking at Lena. "You guys don't go testing things unless there's a way to undo it, right?"
"Not on people," she agreed, but her brow was furrowed. She opened her mouth to speak again, but changed her mind. Bends thought he was the only one who caught it, but Ripster looked up from his computer screen and Slammu looked a little worried. Mutant senses didn't miss much.
"How's that code coming?" Bends asked.
"Terrible," Rip said with a deep frown, still plugging away intermittently at the keyboard when a new solution occurred.
It had taken a bit of practice to be able to type with hands much larger and exponentially stronger, but at least the concentration overrode the shark's natural instinct to move. It was still frustrating work, and though Bends admired Rip's dedication he was quietly hoping the great white would take a break soon. His tension matched his brothers' enthusiasm, and sooner or later something was going to snap…and on a more personal note, Bends wanted to give some serious doctoring to that computer. It had been the ugliest patch job he'd done in a while, and the exposed processor and twisted wires pleaded with him for healing. Something like guilt for his sloppy work was gnawing at him.
"Our reputation's getting worse though," Slammu pointed out, gesturing back to the screen where a general warning was being issued to the public about staying well away from the now infamous 'Street Sharks'. Some choppy footage had been released from Paradigm's security cameras, cleverly spliced to show them at their worst without a hint of their actual humanity. "Now we've got breaking and entering, arson, and attempted murder on the list of crimes we supposedly committed."
"Did commit, little bro," Streex modified, flashing a smirk. "All for a good cause. When we're back to normal we'll go clear things up with the police and everything will be peachy."
Slam looked unconvinced. "Hope so."
"So what's the plan then?" Bends asked. "As much as you guys ever have one."
Despite his obvious distraction, Ripster seemed nominated to speak. The segue from brother to leader seemed almost natural. "It'll depend what's on the disk, which we won't know until I decode it. At the very least there should be something that'll implicate Paradigm instead of our dad, but I'm hoping there'll be something about what he did to us too."
"And how to undo it," Jab put in.
Rip grinned. "We might get lucky…but I can't tell you how long this'll take." He frowned morosely at the screen. "Paradigm definitely knew what he was doing."
"You've hacked a few tough systems though, haven't you? Like the University-" Streex said.
"Those were an intellectual exercise," Rip said quickly, throwing a sheepish glance at Lena, who had crossed her arms and was looking stern. "Testing security measures, not stealing data. This is different."
Streex spread his arms in a 'if you say so' gesture. "Whatever. Point is, Paradigm's a geneticist. He shouldn't be better at this than you."
"Evil geniuses specialize in everything, I guess." Bends mused mostly to himself, but the comment earned him a round of curious looks. "What? It's true. If the man's been plotting how to turn people into monsters - no offense - can you imagine the kind of brain power he's been holding back? He's probably been reading advanced programming theory in his lunch hour just to keep occupied, and let me tell you that stuff is enough to drive anyone crazy-"
"You had a point here somewhere, I thought," Jab said dryly.
"Well if you're going to take over the world, it's going to take more than just one set of skills," Bend pointed out reasonably. "Any super villain needs to be versatile."
Streex made a very strange face. "What makes you think he's going to take over the world?"
"Isn't that what they all want? It's like this one issue of Space Marauders-"
"Hold it right there!" Jab pointed at him viciously. "You are not comparing this to a comic book. Our lives are surreal enough as it is." He folded his arms. "Besides, Space Marauders is a terrible series. You could at least use a half-decent comic for an example."
Bends looked mortally offended. "Are you kidding? Those books are the greatest-!"
"Well," Ripster said quietly to Lena as the argument continued. "We managed to stay on topic for a whole ten minutes that time."
She still had one eyebrow raised in an elegant arch. "Hacking the University networks?"
He ducked his head, not meeting her gaze and muttering something along the lines of, 'professor said it couldn't be done' and 'didn't look at anything classified'.
She sighed. "Oh John."
"It was a long time ago," he insisted defensively, and promptly changed the subject. "Anyway, can I get you to keep a real close eye on Paradigm over the next couple of days? If we're right about that cure, I want to make sure there aren't any weird side effects."
"Of course," she said, although looking for oddities in Paradigm's behavior was like finding the sharp end of a needle in a bucket full of pins. She doubted there'd be anything new come Monday.
As expected, the only development was that Paradigm's temperament was especially foul that morning. Most people sympathetically attributed it to his injuries, which Lena thought was an unnecessary kindness. He put on a nice face for the cameras, but the people he worked with weren't nearly so lucky. At best, he was short with them; at worst, he was disparaging enough to send more than one unlucky tech scurrying for cover in the more isolated corners of the lab.
Lena suffered equally, but her reaction was torn between annoyance and glee. The man could be surprisingly childish, and right now she was reminded of her brother's tantrums rather than a furious adult. He'd lost one of his precious side projects, and she allowed herself to indulge in a rush of minor vindictiveness. She consoled the new intern and pretended not to hear the shouting from his office, and did so with a smile.
None of this was unexpected. There were a few very quiet mutterings in the break room about how the Doctor was recovering from his terrible ordeal, and wasn't he acting just a little bit stranger than usual? But for Lena, who had known him before he'd become subjected to the public eye, this was business as usual.
Still, she was slightly wary when she had to take list of reports in to his office. The dragon's den, and he might as well have been breathing fire when he saw the uninterrupted sequence of negative results. All failures. She focused on the innocuous jug of water on his desk, and flinched a little when he pounded the table hard enough to send ripples through it.
"Still not enough!" he raged, clearly speaking to himself instead of her. People ceased to exist when he was focused on his work. "Why does Bolton's work still…ugh." He doubled over, catching her completely by surprise.
"Doctor?" Her alarm wasn't faked despite the fact that throughout the week she'd been routinely imagining that the world would be a better place if he simply dropped dead. Natural reaction spurred her to his side. "Are you-?"
"Stay back!" he hissed, his voice in a bizarre, high pitch that shook her enough to hesitate her. He turned away from her, facing out towards the window, still clutching his chest and breathing with a slight, shrill whistle that sounded disturbingly like a punctured lung, and she could only hover indecisively without a clue of what was going on.
And in the reflection of glass she saw it; a curled snarl that was too wide and unnatural, and through his thinning lips she saw the gleam of lengthened teeth. A face nightmares were made of, Jab had said, and it was lucky her scream was caught in her throat or else she would have voiced it. It was grotesque, but even as she watched the mutation seemed to be fading. His trembling shoulders relaxed as he got himself back under control. His teeth shrank back and flattened until his mouth could close normally, and though he was left panting there was no trace of the horror left.
So she did the only thing she could do. She took the part of herself than threatened to shatter, screaming and crying, and buried it under the knowledge that if she said one wrong word that could be her own face next.
As normally as she could manage it, she said, "Hold on, let me grab you a glass of water."
He breathed hoarsely, still hunched, and she took the time she'd bought to school her face into earnest concern instead of revulsion. Adopt the mask, play the role. "Should I call an ambulance?"
"No," Paradigm said, a little too quickly. He tempered it with a more gentle, "That shan't be necessary Lena. I saw a physician just yesterday, in fact." He briefly touched his head wound, tentative sipping from the glass she'd offered him. "I'm just fine, thank you."
"If you're sure…" The temptation to flee as soon as possible was overpowering. Instead she forced herself to touch his arm. "But maybe you should think about taking the rest of the day off. You're still recovering."
"My work is too important to wait, especially with these setbacks." He searched her face thoroughly, but the mask of polite blankness was one she'd already perfected when working with him at the University. It served her well now, and he perceptibly dismissed her. "Get back to work. I'll be in down in the main laboratory if you need me."
"Yes Doctor," she repeated automatically, wondering how she'd be able to handle any of the lab equipment, or even a simple pen when her hands were shaking so badly.
It was getting harder to remember that he had a life outside of the brothers' little underground hideaway. Since Ripster had refused to budge from his work, Bends had been home, managed to sleep for a few hours and resignedly committed to a dull morning at the comic store (not to mention fielding a dozen applicants for taking the shifts Clint no longer could, consisting mostly of eager teenagers enamored with the idea of mixing work and play) before coming back. To all appearances Rip hadn't moved an inch, and the only mark of his progress was half a dozen scribbled notebooks containing ciphers that made absolutely no sense to Bends.
"By the way," he said to Rip. "Lena sent me a message. She says 'weird side effects confirmed, details later.' That mean anything to you?"
Rip blanched. "Yeah. Thanks Bends." He looked deeply perturbed, but it proved to be only a temporary distraction, and Bends resignedly gave up hope that the great white would be taking a break any time soon.
Although that computer was definitely at the top of his to-do list, there were still a hundred other things he could occupy himself with. The lair was still seven shades of unpleasant, barely livable, and despite the general consensus that a cure wasn't that far off, fixing it up was a decent time filler and about the only one the brothers had.
To slake the boredom, Jab had armed himself with a 'How to' book and had made a decent start on their electrical problems, so at least there was some more light, but the air was still chilled. Slammu insisted the brothers didn't mind it. Cold was a lesser concern than the smell of damp cardboard and mildew apparently, but Bends was pretty confident that it would fade in time now that the garbage had been cleaned out.
Streex had been making progress with the furniture, separating different areas for various activities including a couch purloined from the University's basement and a newly refurbished TV. Bends asserted that if they broke this one, they were fixing the next one themselves. Between that, the place was starting to look like some kind of scavenged clubhouse, and he made the mistake of mentioning it to Jab.
"Yeah, this place wouldn't hold out against the neighborhood kids," he said with a pointed scowl. "We should really make it a little more defendable. The last stronghold out against evil shouldn't have so many open doors."
Bends raised an eyebrow. "Last stronghold? I thought we weren't comparing this to a comic."
Jab made a face. "You started it….Can't we seal this place off a bit? I don't wanna take any chances that Paradigm'll be sending someone after us before we get that disk decoded."
Bends considered the problem. The maintenance station had six exits on its basement level, and one that lead up to the next floor which was just below the surface. Due to the winding nature of the steam tunnels, blocking most of those off wouldn't really inhibit their movement since you could always walk around. It would probably take care of the draft too.
"We'd need materials," Bends told him. "If you want something that'll hold out it'll have to be metal or brick. Or both." He thought about it. "We could do a few layers of reinforcement." That'd take time, but there was still the possibility that they'd have it. "Metal's easy to find. There's a scrap yard not far from here and it's pretty isolated. You could probably go grab some when it gets darker."
"You're not with Rip on the playing it safe thing?" Jab asked, quirking a half grin.
"You'll be fine as long as you're careful. 'Sides, I need to fix this mess you made." Bends gestured to the mess of wiring in his lap. "Electrician you aren't."
"Never claimed to be," Jab said, looking speculatively towards the ceiling as though he could somehow see up to the surface. Ripster had said he could still hear the sounds of the city even with the insulation of the building blocking it out as far as Bends's ears were concerned. So close, and yet so totally cut off from it…Bends was willing to take pity and give them an excuse to go out.
"Just take someone with you," he advised. He had a moment to contemplate the two possible choices - Rip wouldn't be moved from the computer - and realized only one would be really conductive to getting any work done, not to mention not taking any dumb risks. "Take Slam."
"Yeah, yeah." Jab probably saw through his ploy, but seemed agreeable enough, and Bends had high hopes that they'd actually manage to stay out of trouble.
It took about ten minutes for the euphoria of being back above ground to wear off before Jab could concentrate on the task, but another ten minutes was all it took to sidetrack him from it. Slam really should have expected it. It wasn't that Jab lacked focus, he just needed the right kind of motivation to channel it properly, and the junkyard was full of strange, shiny distractions that were difficult to resist after being stuck in the cramped tunnels for a couple of days. Slam couldn't say he wasn't half tempted himself, but he'd never found it easy to sway from a job once he'd decided on it. First he'd collect the sheeting. Then he'd snoop around with Jab.
As per Bends prediction, there were plenty of large pieces of scrap that would block the holes they were trying to plug. Some of them were almost large enough to do it in one go, but after collecting them, Slam realized that were wouldn't be any easy way to drag them back through the tunnels, so he put them back and started looking for smaller pieces. It didn't really take long, even working by himself, and afterwards he went to track his brother down.
Predictably, Jab had found the most alluring attractions: the cars awaiting their fate of being crunched into a cube. One in particular ad caught his eye, and as Slam approached Jab turned to him with eyes that practically glowed in admiration. "Would you look at this thing?"
The giant cab wouldn't have looked out of place in a monster truck rally. In fact, Slam was pretty sure that was where it had come from, with its bright, aggressive paint and the number of chips and dents it was sporting. It must have been a fine looking machine once, but along with the damage, the wheels had been yanked off and the engine had been gutted. It waited in solemn line with the others for unworthy death. Slam put a sympathetic hand against the door. "Kind of a shame it's here, isn't it."
"It's a waste!" Jab exclaimed, looking at it speculatively. "Wonder if we could save it?"
Slam blinked, pushing at the cab experimentally. It rocked easily. "Well we could move it…but what would we do with it?"
"Fix it!" Jab enthused. "It's big enough in there that we could stretch out, even like this." He gestured down at himself. "It'd be great!"
"Right up until the police pulled us over," Slam said, but with a grin. There was a surreal delight in the thought of owning something that big and powerful.
Jab tried the door handle and surely enough it opened. He climbed across the seat to poke around the dash board. Something clicked and expelled a garbled hiss. "Hey, radio still works."
The static whined unhappily as Jab attempted to tune it, and the garble of background voices eventually became one of unpleasant familiarity. Jab groaned. "Is this dude on every station or what?"
"Evening folks," the cheery voice buzzed over the static. "Guy-in-the-Sky here to give you the latest news on Fission City's mutant problem."
"I'll show him a problem," Jab growled, but at the last second held back the urge to smash the radio. He wasn't sure if the sudden flares of temper had increased with his mutation, or if he was just more aware of them now because of the potential damage he could do. It was annoying to have to hold himself in check all the time.
"Turn it up," Slam urged. They all had mixed feeling on listening to the blather of the reporters, but Slam would force himself through their careless ignorance on the off chance some news of their dad had come out. Jab made a face, but delicately turned the fragile volume knob.
"As you may know, the Bolton family is still at the top of the most wanted list, but the overwhelming number of reports from every quarter of our city has forced our city leaders to admit in the possibility that other mutants have been running loose under our noses for longer than anyone expected. Urban legends of crocodiles in the sewers and werewolf sightings may actually have been based on unrecognized mutant sightings!"
"I think he's reaching," Jab muttered softly. "Crocodiles? That's just dumb."
Slam hushed him.
"In a special KFIZ exclusive, we have a report that at this very moment our boys in blue are engaged in a high speed chase in the downtown area in pursuit of a vehicle in the possession of two unknown mutants."
The brothers shared a look, and simultaneously glanced around in paranoia. They weren't quite in the downtown district, not by a couple of blocks, but still..
"Not us," Slam said, sounding unsettled.
"Definitely not," Jab agreed, but it was difficult to shrug off the heavy feeling, and in the distraction he nearly missed the next part of the announcement.
"From our collaboration of reports, the vehicle is some kind of truck, potentially towing stolen property, and the driver is some kind of…giant lobster, yes you heard that right folks-"
"Wait, what?" It was a good thing the cab was huge. Jab would have hit his head on the ceiling when he flinched if it had been any lower. "Then it's-"
"Paradigm," Slam supplied, his voice dropping several degrees.
"The chase has crossed the Corgate Bridge and is heading west on 22nd street. Other drivers are advised-"
"We are so there," Jab growled, jumping out of the vehicle and dragging Slam with him. "Come on, that's not far from here."
"Shouldn't we let the police handle it?" Slam asked uncertainly.
"You want the police going up against that?"
That was enough to make Slam trot along a bit less reluctantly. "But how are we going to get there?"
Jab grinned manically. "Bends showed me how to hotwire a car once."
There was a silence of stout disapproval from Slam. Jab sighed exasperatedly. "Look, we'll leave it where the police can find it, okay? But if that thing has stolen something for Paradigm, it can't be good, right? What if he's trying to make more of his little gene slamming formula?"
Slam's eyes hardened. Jab might have felt a little bit bad about appealing to his brother's better nature. He had nothing so noble in mind, really, but if there was a chance to jump those two ugly critters of Paradigm's and shake some answers out of them then he was going to take it.
They'd tangled a few times already and Jab was pretty confident that he and Slam would be more than a match for them. Sharks were at the top of the food chain, apparently, but there was something else about those things that didn't sit quite right with him. Vicious as they were, they seemed even more uneasy with their own bodies than the brothers had ever been. Maybe Paradigm hadn't made them right. Maybe he'd even think to ask them about that when he was done getting answers about their dad.
"Hey man, are you okay? You sound kinda funny."
"…Look, I really screwed up. Slam's gone."
"Taken." A pause for a deep, labored breath. "By Paradigm's pets. How was I supposed to know he'd armed them this time." Quietly, "Damnit!"
"Hey Clint, don't space out on me! Where are you?"
"Downtown. Phone booth." The names of the streets were nearly lost in a hiss of pain. "Tell Rip, okay?"
"You can tell him yourself. Just don't move, we'll be right there."
The line was already dead.
When they finally found him, Jab looked about as well as he'd sounded. Scratched and bruised and hunched up painfully against a building, nursing ribs that seemed to be with bruised or broken. His head jerked upright at the sound of their footsteps, but even through he visibly relaxed when he recognized them, Bends wasn't reassured by the hazy, unfocused look in his eyes. It was mirrored in his tilted, drunken grin.
"Took you long enough," Jab slurred, making an attempt to get to his feet but Ripster was beside him in a heartbeat and had him stilled with a touch. Bends had thought it would be safer if he went by himself, but Rip was having none of it. He'd pointed out the unfortunate logic that if Jab wasn't well enough to walk, Bends didn't have much of a hope of carrying him.
"What happened to Slam?" Ripster asked quietly, ghosting Jab's cuts with his hands to answer the question he hadn't voiced; Are you okay? Nothing looked serious, and the most pressing concern was for the youngest whose fate Rip had only heard from Bends's vague second hand explanation.
In response, Jab solemnly offered Ripster the contents of his clenched fist: two tiny, syringe-bodied darts. "Slam got about six of them," he said, his voice uneven with a mix of emotion that Bends tentatively attributed to shock and fury. "I only got two. He went down quicker. They could only take one of us."
He sighed, eyes threatening to close, but he seemed determined to get heard. "They had something else with them. A fish tank. Stolen from the aquarium. Said Paradigm was gonna…do something to it." He was getting less coherent. It must have been an effort to stay awake long enough for them to get here in the first place.
"Where did they go?" Rip urged, shaking Jab's shoulder to try and rouse him a bit.
"Didn't see. They went into the sewers. Had some kind of cart down there. Couldn't track it, and there's police all over the place there now. M'sorry." He managed to drag his eyes back open, his expression tortured. "I shouldn't have dragged him with me…I didn't think those creeps would give us any trouble-"
"I'll find him," Ripster assured him, slipping Jab's arm over his shoulder to haul him to his feet. "Come on. Lets get you home."
"Yeah," Jab breathed, losing a little of his tension. "Might need to…sleep this off a bit. You'll wake me when we go kick Paradigm's ass, yeah?"
"Sure," Rip said easily, but Bends was aware that his tone didn't really promise anything. Jab was probably too far gone to notice.
"Good," Jab murmured, leaning heavily on his brother. "Dun wanna…miss out…"
Bends waited a few seconds until he was pretty certain Jab was as close to unconsciousness as he was going to get while still on his feet before asking, "What are we going to do?"
Ripster's eyes were hollow and desperate. He'd hidden it well from Jab, but he couldn't from Bends. "I don't have a clue."
Paradigm's mood had skyrocketed from merely pleased to insufferable delight at what his creations had brought him. The squid had been at the top of his priority list for the next set of experiments, but it was immediately relocated to the back of the lab and promptly forgotten about in favor of the Shark…just a boy, really, but for his work, youth was an advantage. The cells took the change more easily in adolescence and early adulthood, one of the primary reasons he'd chosen the brothers for his greatest work. It was a shame he'd only been able to witness their transformation on the security tapes. The details had been hazy, but it had certainly been quicker and a lot more painless than any of his other experiments. They probably didn't know how lucky they were.
Here was the opportunity to indulge his curiosity. He'd anticipated a great deal about the route the brothers transformation would take. It had been necessary in order to adjust the gene slamming formula to preserve the most beneficial advantages of both species. To have arms instead of fins, to have the power of the shark's jaw instead of a human's, but such predictions were not the same as seeing it all for himself, and with wicked delight he took the initial measurements of the boy's altered size. The tape measure snaked around the boy's limbs, at first with detached professionalism, but as the results began to filter in from the computer's calculations, it began to linger in wonder. Muscle size in the biceps alone had increased by more than 100. In other places it was even more profound.
Paradigm had observed that, in the lab, both humans and rodents tended to react the same way. The frantic, breathless panic, the wild struggles, and the quiet whimpers of fear were nearly identical. The only difference was that rats tended to be smarter. Wait long enough and their terror faded to discomfort as they gave in to the inevitability of forces they couldn't comprehend. Humans resisted longer, their innate sense of superiority unable to reconcile with the indignity of being subject to a higher power. For some this resulted in anger and denial, for others it was quivering shock. The boy seemed to have reached a state of equilibrium between the two. Afraid but still aware, defiant but not outraged. On one level Paradigm was pleased that it was one of his creations that broke the mold of the lesser beings. On another, he thought a little more subservience would be appropriate, but that would come later.
"So tell me," he said, preparing a new syringe. "Have you felt any discomforts since your evolution? Phantom pains, unusual cravings, anything of the sort? No?"
The boy might have sneered at him, but the expression may just have been an unrelated reflex of the drugged stupor. Paradigm was taking no chances. The boy's strength was unprecedented, beyond even Paradigm's most optimistic predictions, and the current circumstances would only magnify it. The Doctor had taken the estimated dose to keep a creature of that size docile and doubled it, but still the boy's eyes watched him intently thought there was only limited comprehension of his surroundings. Paradigm spoke as one would to an unhatched duckling, hoping to imprint the identity of a 'mother', or in this case 'master', and also because his own voice was a more comforting sound than the weak sighs and groans of the creature on the observation table.
"Now just relax," he crooned. "You may feel a slight pinch…"
The needle filled slowly with blood. The boy made a hurt noise, glaring accusingly at the source of the pain, but Paradigm was oblivious to either guilt or compassion. The restraints on the table rattled ominously, but there was no force behind the struggle. Paradigm petted the boy's head in an absently soothing gesture, earning a quiver of reaction that could have been either fear or revulsion, prompting Paradigm to be a little firmer with the caress. The boy would have to get used to his touch. Regular checkups were necessary, modifications would have to be made, and most of all Paradigm liked his creatures to know their place, and to submit to his touch whenever he pleased.
He sternly held one of the boy's dark eyes as his hand slowly and deliberately felt the contours of the ribcage, mentally comparing the difference between that of a normal human. The problem was working through the trick layers of tightly corded muscle to be sure he was measuring bone instead of flesh - it required a fairly solid pressure that probably wasn't all that painful, but the boy's heightened sensitivity made it seem so. His breath hitched, and it seemed he made some effort to turn away but the restraints and the drugs made it impossible.
Paradigm grinned. "This is all for your own good," he assured the boy, hands traveling further down the torso. "Far less invasive than cutting you open, wouldn't you say?"
It was possible that adrenalin could overcome the potency of the drugs with time. If so, remarks like that one would only speed the process, but a part of him was gratified to see the look of horror in the boy's eyes that only magnified as Paradigm moved his attentions to the vulnerable tissue of the abdomen. Even here he could feel the struggling vibrations of the boy's heart pulsing blood through his body. Organ size would have increased to accommodate for the heightened metabolism. It really was a shame that he wouldn't be able to get a proper look without the benefit of an autopsy, but that would mean wasting a test subject, or at least waiting until he was more sure of their healing factor.
Sharks had a magnificent capacity for regenerating their tissue, and it was one of the benefits he'd tried to breed into the brothers. He remembered facing off against John at the Institute, and despite having received several minor injuries since his transformation, Paradigm couldn't recall seeing any signs of such on the great white…but then it was possible he'd simply missed them. The details surrounding his own mutation were fairly hazy...
The mere thought made him sneer in disgust at both his own misfortune and the wasted opportunity. Through an unintentional but ingenious mistake of his own devising, he'd managed to minimize the effects, but it was still there in his blood stream. It was possible that Bolton was the only one who could come up with a permanent solution to the problem, which was a bitter kind of irony. The bulk of the blame, however, rested with John himself, and in the back of his mind Paradigm was already hatching the beginnings of a plan to lure the eldest of the brothers using the youngest. If there was one subject he wouldn't mind sacrificing for the sake of science…but petty vengeance could wait until he was finished. His need for investigation was not yet sated.
"I told him to be careful," Bends said, not entirely sure if he was angry at Jab or angry with himself. He'd been so sure that nothing would happen, but of course, that hadn't counted on Jab's impulsive temper and monumental stupidity. Half of him was deathly worried that the hammerhead wasn't ever going to wake up again. The other half wanted to throttle him until it was a certainty.
"Like that's ever helped," Streex said, arms crossed as he leaned nonchalantly against the wall. Only the incessant tap of his claws betrayed his confidence. "He never listens. Probably doesn't help that his brain is two sizes too small either."
They were waiting. Talking filled the silence but it didn't seem to speed the time that Ripster needed to pace and think this out. The situation was bad. As a hostage they couldn't have done worse, because the fiercely ingrained instinct to protect each other was strongest for their youngest sibling. Ripster had managed to cover his stark uncertainty before they'd gotten back, but Bends had seen the raw vulnerability and that picture seemed to burn his mind's eye until he couldn't think of anything else. If Rip didn't know what to do, they were screwed.
But the great white said he had something. The beginnings of an idea that was slowly taking form, but he didn't want to discuss it until he'd thought it out properly. If it was a potentially bad idea, he didn't want them to agree on it too swiftly, because right now the need to act, do something, do anything was too strong. Waiting for Ripster to work it out was far more painful, and was taking way too long, but if his mind had taken the same tracks that Bends's had then no wonder he was distracted. The mere thought of what Paradigm could do, even in just the space of a few hours, was terrible. Bends kept flashing back to Jab's all too detailed description of what Paradigm's face had looked like after his transformation. Rip had actually seen it. That was probably much worse.
Rip finally stopped pacing. The gazes of expectation that focused on him must have been nearly painful in their intensity. He didn't look happy. "You're not going to like this."
"Don't care," Streex said shortly. "What have you got?"
"Very little." Ripster sighed deeply, and collapsed gracelessly down on a nearby crate. "We're only got two things we can bargain with. Ourselves, and the disk."
Bends had entirely forgotten about it. The mysterious, locked files they'd lifted from Paradigm's computer that Rip still hadn't managed to get in to. Streex made a dubious face. "The disk is useless."
"Not to him," Ripster said. "There's bound to be something damaging on it, and he's not going to know we haven't already got the right evidence to bring him down. He doesn't even know that we've got it. It'll catch him off guard, and he might be more willing to deal."
Bends voiced the next unpleasant thought. "And if he doesn't?"
"Then I'll trade myself," Rip said without hesitation. "He'll do it. He loathes me. I smelt it on him after he took that needle."
Streex did some quick pacing of his own. Bends had noticed it seemed to ease the shark mentality whenever heavy thinking was needed. "It might work," he said slowly. "What do we do if he takes the bait?"
"Organize a meeting. Someplace isolated." Ripster rubbed at his eyes and Bends suddenly remembered that the shark hadn't been sleeping much prior to this, too busy with the disk. "I don't trust him not to try and double-cross us, so we'll need to be ready. Without Jab, it'll be two against three."
Bends thought about insisting to come along himself, but Ripster caught his eye. "Bends, I need you to stay here. If things go wrong with Paradigm, I'll need someone to make sure the info on the disk gets to the right people."
"And the idiot here wouldn't know how if his life depended on it," Streex added quickly, gesturing at Jab.
Message received, loud and clear. He'd probably just get in the way. Bends sighed, but didn't argue. "Shouldn't you wait for Jab though? Three against three sounds a whole lot better to me." And if it would give Rip a few hours to rest up first, a relieving bonus.
"I'm not leaving my brother in that monster's hands a second more than I have to," Rip said coldly, and Bends knew he didn't have a hope in hell with that line of argument. Truthfully he didn't want to argue it too firmly either. Rip was again in the quiet mood that made the hairs on Bends's arms prickle with unease.
"Okay," Streex said firmly, cutting through the tension and throwing a semi-apologetic look at Bends. "So what first?"
"First," Ripster said, standing once again. "We make a phone call."
Ripster didn't want even a chance of the phone being traced, but getting the required distance felt like a waste of valuable seconds even if he hurried. He'd all but ordered Streex and Bends to stay with Jab on the off chance that he actually managed to wake up, but really he just wanted to be alone for this. He had the feeling it was going to be ugly.
He found an unattended pay phone in a vacant street and, for good measure, shattered the light to be sure he wouldn't stand out. It took every shred of will not to crush the phone in his hand or, less accidentally, smash his fist into the unit before the call was answered. Dread and fear and anticipation made him sick, but he forced himself to wait out the nerve-wracking sequence of rings and barely managed not to flinch when he heard the voice that would haunt his nightmares when shark instincts could be pacified enough to let him sleep deeply.
He didn't swear, he didn't scream, but damn did he want to. "Alright Doctor," he said with shocking, icy calm. "Where is my brother?"
There was a surprised pause from the other end, but Paradigm recovered quickly and with evident gratification. "Ah. John…or is it Ripster these days? Have the reporters managed to infect you with their asinine little monikers?"
Ripster ground his teeth, a sound that could be very much likened to the sharpening of knives. Paradigm probably heard it. "If he's dead, so are you."
"Don't be ridiculous," Paradigm admonished. "After all the trouble I went to acquiring him, killing him would be a waste." Ripster could imagine him affixing a smirk to his face. "Your brother is alive and well, and awaiting your company."
"Can it, Paradigm. We're going to make a deal."
"Your immediate and unconditional surrender," Paradigm purred. "Or else-"
"I have a copy of all your files from the Meshinda Institute," Ripster interrupted. As expected, Paradigm was silenced by uncertainty, allowing the mutant to go on, "We're the only ones who know that you destroyed most of that building yourself, and we know why. There was stuff in that lab that would have buried you if the authorities had ever gotten wind of it, and there's proof on this disk that'll do it all the same. Lets see how your plans work out when the Mayor knows what you're really up to."
There was a lengthy pause as Paradigm considered, and when he spoke again his voice was no longer smug. "So you want to make a deal?"
"I'll destroy every copy I have of the disk," Ripster said. "And I'll give you the original, in exchange for my brother."
The wait was worse than the first one. Ripster knew his bargaining position wasn't strong. He could only count on the Doctor's desire to keep his reputation untarnished against the price of Slam's life. To his thinking, it wasn't an even deal by a long way, but he wasn't thinking in terms of pure logic like Paradigm would. While he might get other chances at the brothers, it would be impossible to undo the damage releasing that disk to the public would-
-assuming it did actually have the implicating proof that Ripster thought it did, and that Paradigm didn't call his bluff and was convinced that his encryptions had been broken, and half a dozen other maybes that he really hoped he was right about because otherwise-
"I agree," Paradigm finally said sourly. "Not that you leave me with much choice. State when and where."
Ripster didn't dare let his relief sound audibly over the line. "Alright, this it how we're going to do this…"
Arrogant children, that's all they were. Paradigm seethed, all traces of his good mood evaporated, and the seaviates knew better than to get in his way as he stalked back through the laboratory. He hadn't anticipated…hadn't calculated...
He had no intention of taking his indignity quietly. No, he had something perfect in mind. Something devious, something damaging. Right now he didn't care so much about the collateral. Fury was making his jaw start to ache again. His teeth were changing a little, growing longer and sharper and threatening to cut his tongue if he talked, so he didn't. He needed a focus, something to stop the mindless bloodlust of the piranha from cutting into his rational thought. He couldn't afford another failure.
The table at the back of the lab was reserved for his unfinished projects. The ones that weren't quite perfect, or nearly finished, or untested, and his hand went unerringly to the soft metal brace in between a pair of Bunsen burners and assorted pieces of wire. It was one of his few mechanical experiments, but designed to work in tandem with the genetic modifications he'd already made to a subject's body. In this case, it would be perfect.
The boy was still and quiet on the table. His metabolism had cut through the worst effects of the drugs, but by this point he was exhausted from Paradigm's ceaseless tests. He barely stirred when Paradigm affixed the collar around his neck, carefully locking it under his jaw. The metal shell was a hybrid material, near impossible to break even by a mutant, and it would be difficult to remove, particularly when the pins pierced the skin to let the catalyst into the bloodstream.
He wanted John to see it work. Paradigm intended to memorize the look on the shark's face when he realized what Paradigm had done. The thought of vengeance pacified the piranha enough that he could think clearly again.
The previous prototype of the collar had been trialed on another test subject who had admitted - under its potent effects - that the sensation of its activation was much like having white hot needles shoved directly into the brainstem. Shortly thereafter Paradigm had realized that the harsh frequency he was projecting into her skull was having an adverse effect on the subject's brain, but was not quite quick enough to save her from a traumatic mental breakdown. She had broken, and he had discarded her still twitching remains like he had all the other failures, but since then he had perfected the device. He was reasonably certain it would perform to specification without too many adverse effects on the boy…which is to say that severe personality fragmentation was still a possibility but it shouldn't inhibit his ability to function like the weapon he was supposed to be.
The mere thought of making a killer out of the most peaceful breed, the irony, the unnatural beauty of it, delighted him.
Still, there was only one way to find out if it actually worked as it should, and if the results were unsuccessful then at least he had another three potential subject to test on. With that in mind, he cheerfully fired up the device watching serenely as the boy's eyes widened first in shock, then in pain, and then went entirely blank.