"Marvel: Tomorrow Knights"
Chapter 1: "The Sinister Verses"
Disclaimer: The universe depicted here is simply a future version of a fictional universe belonging to Marvel Comics. Therefore, many of the characters featured here are offshoots of characters created by those working for Marvel Comics and owned by Marvel Comics. All I own is the idea for the story and the characters that I myself conceived.
Author's note: This is a follow-up to Marvel: Tomorrow Initiative. Not really a sequel so much as a second volume, much like in actual comic book series or a second season of a television series. This second volume/season will continue the plotlines and themes begun in the first volume/season, such as the struggle of the X-Men to ensure the survival of empowered humanity (mutant or mutated), the struggle of the Knights against the corrupt elements of superhuman registration, a deeper look into the inner workings of registration through the eyes of the Avengers, the Black Tarantula's plans for Arachne, and more.
For a time, I thought the life I had before was forever over. Even when I got it back, I didn't really have it back. I had to lie to my friends, to my family, to keep the life I had before separate from the life I live now.
By day, I am Audrey Hopkins, unassuming 15-year-old girl who was smart enough to start high school in the eleventh grade. By night, I am Arachne, New York City's new web-slinging hero. At least, I like to think of myself as a hero. The news calls me a criminal, for fighting crime without a government license.
I'm not alone. I have friends. Good friends. Friends strong enough and skilled enough to have my back when the police or the registered sellouts come for me.
Welcome to my curse, to my gift, to my life.
The clock tower was bustling with activity. The Knights had returned triumphant once again. They had just shut down a shipment of Mutant Growth Hormone and were feeling quite good. Even Winter Soldier seemed to be in better spirits and he generally was not prone to smiles or cheer.
"Good work, you guys," Fearless said, removing her mask to reveal the face of Karin Kusanagi. It was a lovely, smooth-featured face with large dark eyes staring out and tightly closed lips.
"Tarantula's gonna be feeling that," Iron Cage remarked. "Right in the 'nads."
"Don't get too cocky," Iron Fist advised gently. "Black Tarantula will only see it as a minor setback."
"Maybe, but even a scratch hurts," Iron Cage philosophized. "Even if you shrug it off, you still gotta get it cleaned so it doesn't get infected and hurt you worse later."
"Good point," Artemis complimented with a slight smile.
"Thanks, I was rehearsing that one in the mirror." Iron Cage chuckled slightly sheepishly. "Don't tell anyone, though. I have a name to maintain."
"What name?" Iron Fist asked jokingly.
Iron Cage rolled his eyes. "Don't make me hit you, man."
Fearless looked at Arachne. "How do you like the upgrades in your suit?"
"Hey, wait," Nightshade brought up. "Where the heck do you get those nifty costumes for Spider-Lady?"
Speaking of "nifty costumes," Arachne's latest was a black-and-silver affair like the last one, the main difference being design. The spider symbol was designed to resemble the separate parts of a spider's body positioned to approximate the shape of a spider. The top pair of legs went over her shoulders, while the bottom pair intersected – almost – well below her navel and the middle two pairs went under her arms and intersected with the spider on the back, much like the top pair of legs. The bottom pair of legs on the back spider just barely touched the top of her posterior. Sharp silver V-pads rested on her forearms and on the backs of her gloves, the fingers of which were colored silver and large silver teardrop lenses provided the "eyes" of the mask.
"Can't say," Fearless replied. "He wishes to remain anonymous."
"Speaking of that, where's the money coming from?" Winter Soldier asked.
"Anonymous contributors who don't want to see superhumans used as weapons of warfare," Fearless answered coolly.
"You sure that's all there is to it?" Tsukikishi asked. "Because those are some rich contributors."
"Yes, I'm sure that's all there is to it," Fearless replied. "Believe it or not, not everyone hates our guts."
The Knights moved on to the information center of the clock tower. There, Nightshade tapped several keys on the board and the computer screens came to life, showing a news report. ". . . And the Knights' reign of vigilantism continues. The latest word on them shows them devastating a shipment of Mutant Growth Hormone reputed to be going toward several local crime bosses. While their actions have prevented human criminals from gaining superhuman abilities, it does not do much to assuage local authorities, who feel that any statements or actions that imply support for such vigilantism will lead to the same state of superhuman anarchy that existed prior to registration."
"Bull," Fearless spat. "Doesn't anybody read history books anymore?"
"History is written by the winners," Winter Soldier answered. "Stark's side won the war and so they control how people today see pre-registration society."
"It sucks," Arachne said, lowering her mask to expose her face. "Here we are, doing all this good, and they still treat us like we're the threat."
"That's because we are a threat," Artemis replied. "We're a threat to an unjust system that wants to sustain its existence."
Nightshade typed some commands on the keyboard. "Not everyone thinks we're dangerous. There's a group called the Posthuman Freedom Movement that has been arguing against the idea of enforced registration for people with powers. Basically, train supers when their powers manifest or when they gain powers, help them control their abilities, but after that give them the choice to live a normal life among ordinary people."
"I understand that didn't go over so well with some people." Tsukikishi's face was utterly stoic, betraying nothing.
Nightshade snickered. "Certainly not Gyrich. He was ranting in the news about how enforced registration is necessary to keep the normal people safe from us."
"He's a bigot," Arachne said. "I've known people like that, and they just have no use for people that are different from them."
Fearless sighed. "Not quite the case with this one; he thinks we're only useful as living weapons against 'America's enemies.'"
Arachne looked at the time on the monitor of one of the screens. "I'd better be getting home, before my parents wake up and find me gone."
"Sure." Fearless nodded. "See you in the daylight, Audrey."
Arachne kissed Fearless on the cheek and donned her mask, exiting the clock tower and swinging into the night. She managed to make it to her house about an hour before sunrise. Once there, she slipped through the window into her room and landed quietly on the carpeted floor. With a single thought, the nanotechnology that composed her costume sank beneath her skin through her pores, a process that always left her tingling and slightly itchy. Fortunately, Stark had given her a skin cream to deal with that itching, and according to Karin it didn't have anything nefarious in it.
Audrey threw on an oversized T-shirt and climbed into her unmade bed, pulling the covers up over herself and fading into sleep. As she slept, the nanotechnology currently swimming in her body healed the wounds she had sustained during her night out, as it always did. It was a good thing, too; it meant that she didn't have to explain away suspicious bruises to her parents.
Daylight came and with it came another day of school. Before that, Audrey had to have her breakfast, or at least grab a piece of toast to take with her on her way to the rail. She kissed her father and mother on the cheek and picked up a piece of buttered toast, taking a bite out of it. "Yum."
"You know, senior prom's coming up," Mrs. Hopkins brought up.
"Going with Karin?" Mr. Hopkins asked.
"Why not?" Audrey answered. "If some jackasses make an issue of it . . ." She trailed off, feeling her tone made it obvious what she'd do if somebody tried to make an issue of the fact that her date to the prom was another girl.
"Let's hope not," Mr. Hopkins said.
"Thanks, Dad," Audrey said. "See you later."
Classes that day were largely uneventful, except for Posthuman Studies. Now that was marginally more interesting, if only because of the subject of discussion. The subject of discussion that particular day was "licensed super-heroism versus unlicensed superhuman vigilantism."
"I'm sure you've all been paying attention to the news," Mr. Wade intoned. "If you haven't, allow me to refresh you. Some months ago, a team of super-powered vigilantes began operating in this city. Their identities are largely unknown and their base of operations has yet to be found. What we know is that they have struck at the bastions of criminality in this city with a swift, brutal decisiveness that has left those criminals fearing for their continued viability. It can be said that this is a good result, but the question I pose to you is this: Are such results worth allowing unidentified, unlicensed, unaccountable vigilantes to prowl our rooftops at night?"
Audrey raised her hand, prompting Mr. Wade to call on her. When he did, she began to speak. "Since a generation following the end of the Superhuman Civil War, the government has been propagating the idea that pre-registration American society was no better than the Wild West. To elaborate, it has claimed that superhumans battled each other in the streets with no regard at all whatsoever for the ordinary civilian caught in the middle of such battles and legitimate authorities were helpless to stop them. That was never entirely the case; many superheroes were willing to work alongside conventional authorities and the government would from time to time employ superheroes in certain operations."
"Good points," Mr. Wade remarked. "Would anyone like to counter?"
Sky raised his hand and Mr. Wade called on him. "The conventional authorities only worked with superheroes because they had no choice. On those occasions, the threat was such that only another superhuman could counter it. And most anti-super tech back then was relatively useless against the real heavy hitters. Not to mention, the government only put the superheroes to work when it was stuff that they couldn't use their own agents for. Superheroes didn't do that much good for the public before registration."
"What do you mean?" Adina asked softly.
"Yeah, they saved lives, but how many of those lives wouldn't have been endangered if these superheroes had never shown up?" Sky retorted. "Not to mention, a lot of those superheroes were hooked up with really advanced technology and did they share it with the general public? No."
"You're forgetting one thing," Audrey cut in. "Most people hated superheroes back then. At best, they were a necessary evil. At worst, they were just as much a menace as the outright super-villains. Do you think the general public would have accepted super-tech from the people they felt were responsible for the daily terror they experienced?"
"Maybe the super-tech would have changed people's minds!" Sky rejoined.
"Maybe, or maybe somebody smart enough would have reverse-engineered it into weapons to kill off everybody with powers," Audrey responded.
"The point is that you can't have people with powers doing whatever they want," Sky averred. "Back then, anybody who could do something cool that most people couldn't was throwing on a costume and beating the crap out of crooks or cops or somebody like them. Do you have any idea what kind of 'collateral damage' that caused?"
"And do you have any idea that some of that damage was manipulated by construction companies that specialized in that kind of thing and wanted bigger profits?" Audrey inquired sharply.
"What do you want, for the world to be like it was fifty years back?" Sky interrogated brutally. "Your beloved Spider-Man swinging around the city bashing up whoever he felt like? Your precious Captain America running a renegade operation just because he didn't feel like following the law?"
Audrey's fists were clenched so tightly that her nails had pierced her palms. Behind her, Karin gently placed a hand on her shoulder and cast a cold glare at Sky. "Back off, all right? Just back off."
"Would anyone else like to contribute to this discussion before punches start being thrown?" Mr. Wade asked sardonically.
"Did anyone ever hear about the Posthuman Freedom Movement?" Jack asked.
"Yes, but I'd like you to elucidate for us what that is," Mr. Wade suggested kindly.
"Sure," Jack replied. "They're saying that registration ought to be dialed back a tad, that it's a good idea to have superhumans accountable to the government but that they shouldn't be forced into working for the government if they don't want to."
"Interesting point," Mr. Wade said. "Anyone want to add to or counter?"
"What would those superhumans do if they weren't working for the government?" Sky asked.
"Maybe find jobs in construction or security," Jack replied. "Think about it. A person with extreme agility and dexterity could test security systems against thieves or spies. A cyberpath could test online security systems against hackers or work for the police to go after cyberstalkers. A person with explosive powers or super-strength could work in demolition. A high-speed runner or flyer could carry light cargo cross-country. See the possibilities?"
"Doesn't sound so bad," Sky mused. "But what about the ones who wanna fight crime on the side without being licensed for it? Or the ones who just wanna use their powers as a shortcut to wealth and power? What do we do about them?"
"Send licensed supers after them and strip them of their powers once captured?" Jack asked.
"Oh, God!" Audrey cried out. "Strip them of their powers? What gives us the right to do that to someone, to take away part of who they are? It'd be just like cutting off their arms or their legs!"
"It's necessary," Sky answered. "Power-dampening cells and collars can malfunction or be removed. The nanite inhibitors provide a more foolproof method of keeping people who won't use their powers properly from using their powers."
"Even that's not foolproof," Jack brought up. "S.P.I.N. tech can be shorted out."
"A good reason to keep them behind bars once spun so they don't regain access to their abilities and become a threat again," Sky said. "And you know who ought to go first? The Knights."
"Why the Knights?" Karin asked.
"Because they're vigilantes," Sky replied. "They're running around, openly flouting the law and scaring the crap out of normal people."
"And stopping criminals," Mr. Wade inserted.
Sky was livid. "At what cost? If we let vigilantes bring in criminals, then we're basically saying we want to go back to the bad old days, when the law was helpless to stop supers from acting however they would."
"I keep saying, things weren't like that," Audrey insisted. "Not my fault you're too blockheaded to understand that."
"'Blockheaded'?" Sky repeated angrily. "My dad's mother died when he was a baby in the middle of a superhuman grudge match! You want that sort of thing happening again?! To someone else's mom or dad or someone's kid?!"
"Isn't that the same argument they used when they started herding superheroes into the 42, started cloning thunder gods to use as living weapons on the resistance?" Karin asked with a cold sneer. "The same tactic to appeal to the amygdala, the primitive part of the human brain that isn't developed enough to see past fear, desire, or hate?"
"It's not about fear!" Sky exploded. "Or hate! It's about knowing that these super-powered freaks could end the world as we know it unless something is done to contain them!"
"That's what people used to say about the Soviet Union and other major Communist powers," Jack interceded. "They also said that about Middle Eastern countries getting nuclear weapons or similarly powerful 'weapons of mass destruction.'"
"Well, a lot of people have powers that qualify them as weapons of mass destruction!" Sky retorted furiously.
"Settle down, Sky," Mr. Wade cut in. "I understand you're upset, but you've all raised some pretty valid points. While there is a need to contain the maladjusted among the superhuman community, you cannot tar them all with the same brush. Not every single person with powers is a threat to humanity and those who are should not be held up as examples to condemn the entire lot. Now, unless you can discuss this like civilized people, I'm going to ask you to read the next seventy pages from where we left off on Red, White, and Blue: Colors of an American Hero."
Thus, the rest of the class was spent reading seventy pages of the biography of Steve Rogers. Not that it was time ill spent; the original Captain America had been one of Audrey's favorite superheroes back when she was a little girl. She would have to show this book to Winter Soldier, assuming that he didn't have a copy of his own or wasn't utterly disgusted with the book for not "fully capturing the awe-inspiring greatness that was the true Captain America."
After the class was over, Audrey tried to go to Sky, but the boy shied away from her. Undeterred, Audrey zipped directly across from him, using athlete-level speed so as not to shock him too much. "Get out of my way," he hissed quietly.
"I want to say I'm sorry," Audrey answered. "I didn't know . . . about your grandmother."
"Save it," Sky cut in. "All the apologies in the world won't change the fact that I'll never know my father's mother and he'll never know her, either. So save it. Thanks for the sentiment, but save it." He walked away curtly, leaving Audrey crestfallen.
Audrey felt a gentle hand on her shoulder and turned to see Karin. "Let's get to our next class." She said that while reaching up to place her hand on Karin's and gently squeeze it.
That night, Audrey was out for dinner with her parents. To her credit, she'd gone semiformal, wearing a simple indigo blouse and black wool skirt with stockings and low-heeled pumps. She'd even put moisturizer on her face, but makeup was where she drew the line; she was not going that far to look good. As her parents had said, she looked good without makeup, anyway.
What was the restaurant dinner for? To celebrate her mother becoming an administrator at her place of work, of course. It would mean higher pay and more prestige, but it would also mean a greater workload, which would in turn mean less time spent with the family. Audrey didn't mind that last part so much; with Arachne being needed to combat the crime in the city, she needed to be out more and she couldn't come up with inventive excuses to go out forever. The less time her parents spent at home, the less opportunity they would have to grill her.
"Something wrong, Audrey?" Mrs. Hopkins asked.
Audrey looked up at her mother. "This boy in my Posthuman Studies class, his grandmother died when his father was just a baby. According to him, it happened in the late pre-registration era, like a clash between supers."
"Does he blame the supers for that?" Mr. Hopkins inquired.
"According to him, his grandmother's death was directly caused by that fight," Audrey answered. "Collateral damage." She winced. "God, that sounds so antiseptic, doesn't it? I feel bad for him, but . . . he seems to hate everybody with powers, like he thinks they're all out to destroy ordinary people and their lives."
"It's really no different from what happened following Pearl Harbor in 1941." Mr. Hopkins smiled ruefully. "After that, people thought that Japanese people in America, whether they were born there or immigrated later in their lives, were all innately loyal to the Japanese empire and were trying to destroy America from within, so they put them in internment camps. Then there was September 11, 2001, which got a lot of people scared about Middle Easterners and Muslims. Like, all of a sudden, Islam was this violent religion that demanded blood as a show of faith and people who believed in Allah were these insane militants who wanted to kill Americans, so we started locking them up at first."
"And after Stamford fifty years ago, ordinary people were even more scared of people with powers than they were before. I mean Magneto and Dr. Doom were bad enough, but when you had a bunch of reckless 'superheroes' causing a disaster of that magnitude . . ." Mrs. Hopkins trailed off.
"I know," Audrey murmured. "Read all about it in the history books, not to mention the lynch mobs that were coming at the others."
"People wanted something done about what they felt were walking engines of destruction," Mr. Hopkins continued. "Not that they were wrong for feeling that way, but some people took it farther than the general public would have suspected, or maybe even wanted."
"The point we're trying to make is that when people are hit by personal tragedy and they feel it was caused by someone from a small social group, they blame that tragedy on the entire group and think they're all bad," Mrs. Hopkins said. "Pearl Harbor made Americans think all the Japanese were bad during World War II, 9/11 made people think Middle Eastern Muslims were violent fanatics who wanted to destroy their way of life, and Stamford made people think that superhumans were going to bring about Armageddon and that they had to be stopped before it was too late for ordinary people. Do you understand what we're trying to say?"
"Yeah," Audrey admitted heavily. "I still feel bad for him, though."
"That's not wrong," Mrs. Hopkins said.
Suddenly, Audrey's personal perception of the temporal flow slowed down, a signal from her spider-sense that there was danger in the area. She turned and saw a metal tentacle with three sharp pincers attached in a triangular fashion shooting toward her. Audrey lunged for her parents, knocking them off their seats and to the ground just as the tentacle crashed into their booth.
"What was that?!" Mr. Hopkins asked.
A red-haired woman made herself apparent, looking utterly like an ordinary woman in a doctor's coat except for the fact that four metallic tentacles writhed around her body, dispatching anyone foolish enough to get in her way. Beside her, a green-haired woman garbed in skintight black with a mask over the lower half of her face stood quietly, as though awaiting a signal.
"I'm going to see if I can find a phone to call the police with," Audrey whispered.
"Don't!" Mrs. Hopkins whispered. "Those women might spot you!"
"I'll be really quiet and I'll stay low to the ground," Audrey answered, kissing her mother and father on the cheek. "Don't worry about me." Moving as quickly and as quietly as she could without giving away her abilities, Audrey speed-crawled on her belly until she was out of her parents' sight. As she did so, she heard the tentacle-wielding woman demand the location of the Hopkins' table. Not wasting time, Audrey quickly got out of sight and her clothes shifted into their true form of her Arachne costume.
A web-line snagged one of the lab-coated woman's tentacles and Arachne used it to swing into a flying kick. Another of the woman's tentacles lunged at her, but she somersaulted in midair to evade even as the remaining two tentacles sprang at her. One tentacle's pincers grazed her leg, but that didn't stop Arachne from kicking the lab-coated woman.
"Who are you supposed to be?" she asked. "Doctor Octopus after a sex change? In the meantime, let's take this dance outside!" Staying true to her word, Arachne sprang out of the restaurant, "Dr. Octopus" and the black-clad woman following her. "What do you want here?"
"We've already gotten it," "Dr. Octopus" replied, "and it's not what we want; it's what Black Tarantula wants."
Great, Arachne thought. We must have really gummed up the works in his operation for him to go after me like this. But if he came after my family . . . does this mean he knows who I am? Her eyes narrowed behind her mask. If he does, what am I gonna do?
Arachne began swinging away from the restaurant, hoping to find unoccupied ground to fight in. "Dr. Octopus" stretched her tentacles to carry her across the city after Arachne. The masked woman jumped up onto and climbed a wall, reaching the rooftop and running and leaping from that to another to follow Arachne, who rapidly swung through the city.
Time went into flux for Arachne again, a signal from her spider-sense that danger was very close to her. She turned to meet it, only to be knocked off her web-line by the masked woman. As the two costumed females exchanged blows and plummeted, Arachne was using one arm to spin a giant web-based safety net; the impact dampeners that were part of Stark's latest upgrade to her costume would ensure her survival, but she wasn't so sure about that of the masked woman. Unfortunately for Arachne, said masked woman was faster and stronger than she thought, straining Arachne's free arm.
"What's wrong with you?!" Arachne asked irately. "Do you honestly want to die or something?!"
The masked woman didn't answer, instead opting to unzip her left sleeve from the rest of her suit. Once that was done, she began to unzip the sleeve itself, pulling her arm and hand free of it. The revealed arm was as pale as the exposed skin of the woman's face, with a scorpion tattoo above the hand.
Arachne webbed the woman's arm, only for the webbing to almost immediately dissolve on contact. On second look, it wasn't dissolving so much as being burned away by some kind of electricity. The woman thrust her left hand at Arachne, but Arachne dodged . . . barely. She felt the electrical aura surrounding the woman's arm touch her, even though the arm itself hadn't touched her. Just then, she landed on her web-net, but her spider-sense warned her of the masked woman's attack, just in time for her to roll away and watch as the woman's electrical aura burned a hole in the web-net.
Arachne's spider-sense went off again and she instinctively dodged, only to not quite be fast enough this time. This time, the masked woman moved with a speed that was blinding even for her, tagging Arachne between her arm and her chest and sending a pulse of indescribably painful electricity through the spider-like girl's body. She went limp, only to be caught by the masked woman.
"Good job, Scorpion," "Dr. Octopus" complimented.
End Notes: Oh, man. Arachne has been caught by the bad guys! How did they know to look for her at the restaurant where she and her parents were celebrating her mother's promotion and what does Black Tarantula want with her? How will she get out of this predicament and how will whatever it is the rogue Spider-clone has in mind change things for her? For the answers to those questions and more, stay tuned for the next chapter and let me know what you thought of this one.