"Marvel: Tomorrow Ultimatum"
Chapter 1: "Know Me by My Scars"
Disclaimer: While this story is set in the Marvel Universe, many of the characters here belong to me unless you recognize their names from the original comic books. Even then, they might simply be legacy characters I created, unless specifically noted. In any event, I make no money from this story, as I am not licensed by Marvel Comics to produce it.
Author's note: I ended Marvel: Tomorrow MAX with as close to a bang as I could manage, with epic battles, ideological clashes, reunions, epiphanies, and . . . the story isn't over yet. The big battle might be over, but Audrey Hopkins is in more trouble than ever; the CSA knows her secret identity, and someone's kidnapped her family. Just who could have done this, and for what purpose? It's not going to be pretty, but she will find out.
"Who did this?" Audrey growled, looking at the tableau of devastation before her. A blinking light in the corner caught her attention and she sprang to it, finding that it was some kind of miniaturized holo-projector. She picked it up and pressed the button on the side, and a miniature hologram of Michael William Giles, a.k.a. Hate-Monger, sneered at her.
"If you're getting this, spider-bitch, then that means you're back. Good enough for me. You tried to break me. I'm going to break you now. And your family is going to help me do it. If you want to stop me, when this message finishes, it's going to show you a map. Follow it precisely if you want your family to live. See you there . . . c#&."
Audrey glared at the holographic map that replaced Hate-Monger's despised image, the symbiote reforming into its default state. Suddenly, time dilated around her, a signal from her spider-sense that things were not all well and good. Immediately, she sprinted for the window, smashing through the glass and throwing herself to the ground just as the house exploded behind her. The sound of the explosion rattled the symbiote, but Arachne huddled for dear life, rising to her feet.
She turned around and looked at the burning wreckage that used to be her house. With nothing more to do except rip Hate-Monger's heart out for this, she took off into a web-swing. As she swung, she had no idea that Hate-Monger was watching her, or that he wasn't the only one watching. Hate-Monger switched his visual to a heavily muscled man dressed in a sleeveless black suit and a white-fronted black mask resembling a skull.
"Yeah?" the man so identified as Crossbones grunted.
"The spider is on the move. Get in position."
Hate-Monger closed the communication, turning to the Red Skull. "She's on her way."
"You know our arrangement," the Red Skull answered. "Until the wench who humiliated you dies, you will not get anything further from me."
"Yeah. What do we do about the wench's parents and sister?"
"We prepare them for the show." Red Skull's tone betrayed nothing less than inhuman satisfaction.
Meanwhile, Arachne followed the map . . . until her spider-sense warned her to drop her web-line. Drop her web-line she did, just in time to evade a rocket-propelled fragmentation grenade that would have either blown or cut her apart. As she dropped, she fired a web-line to catch the grenade and then wound up her arm, throwing the grenade back at the ones who had just shot it at her. They scattered, but the grenade still detonated on impact, sending them scattering even further.
Arachne swung into their midst, gritting her teeth in cold rage. "An obstacle course, is it? Fine. I'm good at those." She turned to her assaulters. "I knew I recognized you bastards from somewhere."
Her assailants were a hoverboard gang known as the Death Borders, whom she had rather brutally trounced while under the psychological grip of the Venom symbiote. They were supposed to be paraplegic, if not quadriplegic, after what she'd done to them, but they were moving about on their boards as though nothing had happened to them. At the moment, they were surrounding her, circling her like sharks taunting their prey.
"Yeah, spider-bitch, you know us," one Death Border sneered.
"How are you walking?" she asked.
"Hate-Monger 'borged us up," another Death Border answered. "Now we're strong enough and fast enough to take you."
At that moment, a Death Border threw himself into a kick, slamming the underside of his board into Arachne's face. Arachne thrust her hand up in a hard heel drive that knocked the Death Border off balance. Two other Death Borders sky-surfed at Arachne, who jumped into a midair flip and landed one-footed on one of their boards, using the other foot to kick the Death Border off. She threw herself into a flying kick on the other Death Border, who was sky-surfing at her. The Death Border caught her ankle with surprisingly quick reflexes and threw her into the midst of his fellows who were closing in on her.
Arachne twisted into a flying kick on the nearest Death Border, knocking him off his board. She moved like a deranged human pinball, sending Death Borders either falling off their boards or falling out of control on their boards. A few were able to right themselves and attack her, but she managed to evade them for the most part. A Death Border kicked the underside of his board into Arachne's face, turning up the afterburners on it. The symbiote screamed in pain from the heat, Arachne fighting through that pain to clog up those afterburners with her webbing.
With a vicious heel drive, she sent the Death Border spiraling out of control and jumped down to recover, the symbiote healing its and her burn injuries. "You punks still wanna go?" she asked.
The Death Border who'd had the rocket-powered grenade launcher pointed it at Arachne, whose immediate answer was to clog it with impact webbing. "Go ahead. Fire. I dare you."
The Death Border pulled the trigger, anyway, only for Arachne to grab the grenade launcher and throw it as high and as far into the sky as she could. The explosion was still close enough to rattle the symbiote, and her as well. Fortunately for her, the Death Borders were also rattled by the explosion; must have been the cyberaudio implants. Recovering quickly, Arachne sprayed them all with generous amounts of webbing.
"I don't have time for you right now," she said, firing a web-line and swinging away.
As she swung, Red Skull monitored her through his hack of the surveillance drones. "Crossbones, are you in position?"
"Been there for ten minutes."
"At the rate she's moving, she should be on top of you in two," the Skull remarked.
"Why are we playing these games?" Hate-Monger asked.
"Amusement," the Skull replied. "Besides, I want to see just how a little girl like her was able to get the better of you."
Hate-Monger growled. "We should just kill the bitch's fam now and send her to join them in hell when she gets here."
Red Skull turned on Hate-Monger with a malevolent gleam in his eyes. "Running her ragged is a much better strategy. Save murdering her family for when she's at the end of her rope, when you've beaten her to the edge of death, just when she's beginning to get back some resolve. . . ."
"I like the way you think."
"I'm the one who does the thinking here, anyway." He turned to the screen. "Ready, Crossbones?"
At that moment, Arachne's spider-sense triggered and time dilated just enough to allow her to dodge the sniper's bullet that would have killed her. As she twisted to evade, she fired impact webbing at the sniper's rifle, only for the sniper to use the rifle to pole-vault out of the way. Not impressed, Arachne swung around and jumped on the rooftop, facing a heavily muscled leather-clad man in a mask vaguely resembling a death's head and pointing a sniper rifle at her.
"Who might you be?" she asked.
"Crossbones," the man replied, accenting it by firing a smaller handgun at her. Arachne dodged, only to barely twist out of the way of a kick from Crossbones.
"You're fast for such a big man," she remarked.
"And I've heard you're strong for such a little girl," Crossbones rejoined maliciously. "Wanna prove it?"
Arachne launched herself into a flying kick, only for Crossbones to block her kick with his rifle. To his surprise, Arachne stuck her foot to the rifle and used her grip to take it out of his hands. With a 360-degree spin, she kneed him in his masked face, following up with an uppercut to his chin. Crossbones staggered back from the force of her blows, but he wasn't downed just yet.
"Yeah, looks like the rumors were right about you," he remarked.
"Thanks for the compliment," Arachne shot back, shooting binding webs at him. Crossbones simply drew a vibroknife that sliced through Arachne's webbing, only for it to turn out that Arachne had used the webbing to blindside Crossbones to her more close-range assault. Despite that, Crossbones slid past Arachne, grinding his vibroknife against her side, cutting through symbiotic armor, flesh, and muscle. Fortunately for Arachne, the symbiote began to recover . . . and help Arachne heal along with it. That didn't necessarily mean it didn't hurt.
Crossbones gave a glance at Arachne that, despite his mask, seemed to give off the impression of malicious self-satisfaction. "Is that all you've got in you?"
Arachne snapped a web-line out to grab Crossbones' vibroknife, but Crossbones merely caught the web-line and yanked on it. Arachne turned it to her advantage, swinging into a kick that caught Crossbones in the stomach. She twisted to slam her knee into the side of his head, knocking him to his knees. Despite his position, he managed to thrust his elbow behind him and slam it into her solar plexus . . . with a vibroknife hidden below his elbow.
Arachne staggered back, as Crossbones rose to his feet. Arachne bit back a pained hiss, as the symbiote worked overtime to heal both that wound and the earlier one Crossbones had dealt her. Finish him quickly, Audrey, the symbiote snarled. There is only so much damage you and I can take.
I know, Arachne answered. She darted behind Crossbones and attempted to ram her knee into the back of his neck. Unfortunately, he seemed to have anticipated that move, as he whirled to grab her knee and use it as leverage to throw her to the roof. Arachne tumbled onto her feet and lunged at Crossbones, hitting him as fast and as hard as she possibly could without killing him. Crossbones blocked her strikes to the best of his not-inconsiderable ability, but more of her attacks were getting through than not.
As a means of evening the odds, he drew another small pistol, hidden on his person, and shot her in the stomach. Even her reflexes couldn't be good enough to dodge a point-blank gunshot, right? Wrong. Dead wrong; she sidestepped the blast and punched him through his stomach, but instead of blood . . . she got circuitry and oil. To his surprise, she just snickered, as though she'd found something amusing.
"You've 'borged yourself out that much?"
"Full conversion," Crossbones confirmed smugly. "Super-strong, super-fast, super-durable, and super-realistic . . . for the really good stuff."
"Then I guess I have no reason to hold back on you," Arachne mused. "You can just get maintenance, right?"
Crossbones went for his gun again, but Arachne was faster, cutting off his hand with her symbiotic blades and slashing his throat with those same blades. "I'm not in the mood anymore," she said, just before jumping off the rooftop and web-swinging in the direction the map commanded her.
Hate-Monger sneered at the screen. "So much for Crossbones."
"Frankly, I'm only disappointed he didn't last longer," Red Skull commented. "That's where you come in. With the upgrades I've given you, you better be able to take her out of the picture. Otherwise . . ."
"Go check in on the prisoners."
When Hate-Monger went to check out the cells containing the Hopkins, he got a raised middle finger from their elder daughter Kaye. "Stupid Nazi."
"Stupid bitch," Hate-Monger retorted.
"Whatever my daughter did to you, you most likely deserved worse," Mrs. Hopkins spat.
"She ruined everything, your daughter," Hate-Monger snarled. "All that careful planning, she threw a giant monkey wrench in it . . ."
". . . and left you too beaten up to even whimper like the cowardly puppy you really are," Mr. Hopkins finished snidely.
"Keep talking like that," Hate-Monger sardonically encouraged. "It's only going to make it that much more satisfying when I kill her in front of you."
"If you lay a finger on my daughter . . ." Mr. Hopkins began to warn.
"You'll do what, exactly?" Hate-Monger taunted. "You're a middle-aged, feeble-minded man with no real grasp of the world around you, much less how your own daughter has been spending her nights. You didn't assume it was all d& make-out sessions, right?"
"You wouldn't know a thing about love if it raped your pathetic little ass," Kaye sneered.
Hate-Monger pointed a finger at her, letting the nail extend into a deadly claw. "If you know what's good for you, you'll shut the f& up."
"Look at you, trying to act like a big man," Kaye taunted. "You know, I never really got the psychology of Nazis. I just figured you guys had to be particularly pathetic and weak-minded yourselves to start thinking all your problems could be traced to some not-you-guys group. I think I get it now."
"You're bullies. Plain and freaking simple. And what are bullies? Sad, pathetic, small-minded children looking for something smaller and weaker than yourselves to beat up."
The claw extended further, getting dangerously close to Kaye's eye. "Would you like it if I cut out one of your eyes?"
Kaye bit her lip, glaring defiantly at Hate-Monger. "Do your worst."
"Kaye!" Mrs. Hopkins shouted in warning.
Just then, Hate-Monger got a radio from the Red Skull. "Hate-Monger. That's enough. Come back here at once."
"Yes," Hate-Monger snarled. He retracted his claw and began walking away. Once he was out, Mr. Hopkins slumped in his cell.
"He might have had a point."
"A point?! What point?! The guy's a psycho!" Kaye protested.
"Yes, but . . . how well have we known Audrey lately? Those late nights with Karin, those disappearances . . . all this time she's been some kind of super-vigilante, throwing herself into danger against the kind of odds that nobody normal would survive."
"I get it," Mrs. Hopkins mused. "We should have done something more to keep her with us."
"What could we have done?" Kaye asked. "She's got the proportional strength, speed, and agility of a spider, plus that nifty ability to scale walls without needing climbing equipment. We wouldn't have the power to keep her in. Not if she didn't want to stay in, and being a superhero, fighting for the innocent . . . it's all she's dreamed of since she was a little girl. She looks up to Spider-Man more than she'll ever look up to me, or even you guys."
"Some dream it turned out to be," Mrs. Hopkins remarked grimly. "More like a nightmare, in this world."
"Bad habit of superheroes, though; they do the right thing, even if everyone else disagrees with them," Kaye observed. "Even if everyone else hates them, despises them, tries to run them out of town, they do the right thing."
Back in the central area of their base, Hate-Monger confronted Red Skull. "She's coming, isn't she?"
"She'll be here," Red Skull answered. "She gets closer to us every second."
"The Death Borders, Crossbones . . . they failed," Hate-Monger snarled. "I will not."
"Glad to see you're so confident. I hope you live up to your own press."
Hate-Monger looked at the screen, switching the view to his lookout. "Where is she?"
"She's –" He was cut off by a strike to the back of his head that knocked him out of the video feed. Immediately, Arachne's face replaced his.
"Here." And then she was gone.
Red Skull turned to Hate-Monger. "You get her. I'll deal with the family."
"Yes," Hate-Monger sneered, moving to deal with Arachne. As for the Red Skull, he went to the cells where the Hopkins were being kept and unlocked them.
"You three are coming with me."
Hate-Monger stalked outside as white ooze leaked out of his pores. The ooze slithered out, covering his body in a protoplasmic white sheath with black sides and shoulders. His face was concealed by a white mask with white eyes staring out of a black frame that took up most of his face. His fingers gnarled into sharp claws, looking as though they could cut through steel like wet tissue paper. In fact, he was looking forward to doing exactly that to his opponent.
"Hate-Monger," Arachne greeted, standing before him.
The very sight of Arachne filled Hate-Monger with rage. He wanted to rip her apart, he wanted to reach inside her and tear out her lungs, he wanted to make her beg for her life, for her family's lives . . . oh, there were just so many things he wanted to do to her. He was going to get the chance to do them all now, and he was going to enjoy each and every one of them. He grinned savagely beneath his mask of white protoplasm.
"What did you do with my family?"
"They're safe, for the moment. My partner is bringing them out so they can watch you die. Or so you can watch them die. Depends on my mood."
Hate-Monger almost didn't see Arachne move, emphasis on "almost." With his newfound power, his senses and reflexes were sharper than ever, allowing him to reach up and catch Arachne's punch with mocking ease. Arachne's symbiote attempted to pierce his hand with symbiotic blades, but Hate-Monger's protoplasmic sheath thickened around his hand and he pierced her hand with his claws. Immediately, the symbiote began to melt away from around her hand, exposing pale, almost pinkish flesh.
"What . . . what's going on?" she asked.
Hate-Monger laughed. "I am a living antibody, a walking antithesis to the infection that allowed you to defeat me."
"She . . . is not . . . an infection," Arachne snarled.
"Well, 'she's' going to die, and you're going to join her," Hate-Monger vowed.
By this point, the symbiote had left Arachne's entire arm bare, but Arachne thrust her knee up into his solar plexus. That turned out to do little good as well, as the symbiote began to melt from around her knee. The corrosion spread to Arachne's entire leg, leaving it as bare as her arm. Hate-Monger threw her aside, and she twisted into a graceful landing, the symbiote slowly recovering Arachne. With her fully covered hand, Arachne fired a binding web at Hate-Monger, only for Hate-Monger to grab her web and pull her toward him with a web of his own.
Arachne used his grip as leverage to swing into a kick that knocked Hate-Monger down, just as the Red Skull brought her family out in flexicuffs and hobble cuffs. "Mom! Dad! Kaye!" she shouted. She sprang for them, only for Hate-Monger to grab her legs with his webs and pull her down, dragging her toward him.
"Let go of my daughter, you monster!" Mr. Hopkins shouted.
Hate-Monger paid Mr. Hopkins no mind, grabbing Arachne by the throat. The corrosive effect of his touch melted the symbiote off Arachne slowly, causing it to drip off her body in large black globs. Judging by the expression on her half-exposed face, both the symbiote and the girl were in tremendous pain. Hate-Monger liked that, wanted to see more of it, so he squeezed tighter on her throat.
"I said, let go of my daughter!" Mr. Hopkins shouted.
"Your daughter's going to be dead soon," Hate-Monger sneered. "Then you know what I'm going to do to her? I'm gonna rape her corpse until it decomposes enough to stop being pretty."
Were it not for the hobble cuffs, Mr. Hopkins would have attempted to attack Hate-Monger. Of course, Mr. Hopkins momentarily forgot about those and attempted to charge Hate-Monger. He was immediately reminded of their existence when he fell to the ground. The Red Skull picked him up by the back of his collar, standing him up on his feet again.
"Damn you," Mr. Hopkins growled at the Red Skull.
Hate-Monger continued to squeeze Arachne's throat, until the symbiote attacked him. It exploded from Arachne, wrapping around Hate-Monger in an attempt to crush him with its mass. Hate-Monger's form twisted and warped around the symbiote as he attempted to fight it off. Indeed, Hate-Monger seemed to be succeeding, as holes formed and grew in the symbiote's mass. The two entities continued to struggle, until Hate-Monger's own protoplasmic mass unfurled in a writhing mass of bladelike tendrils that splattered the symbiote onto the ground.
"Venom!" Arachne shouted, now dressed only in the nightshirt she'd worn when the symbiote had first bonded with her, moving toward the symbiote.
"It's dead, girl," Hate-Monger sneered. "You're next."
Arachne placed her hand on a piece of the symbiote. It rippled slightly at her touch, but did not seem to respond other than that. "Venom?"
Audrey . . . thank you . . .
For not rejecting us. You are far kinder than we deserve. Hold on to that.
"It sounds like you're saying good-bye."
We are. Hate-Monger's touch is a lethal toxin to our kind. There is nothing we can do.
"You . . . you're . . . you're going . . . ?"
Unfortunately, yes. We have one final request.
"What is that?" Arachne wondered.
Find Parker. Tell him . . . we forgive him.
The symbiote dissolved completely, and that was the last she heard from her. She looked up at Hate-Monger, her rage-filled eyes now ringed by purplish-black bags and her exposed skin paler than before. She slowly rose to her feet, her darkened brown hair almost shielding her face.
"Aw . . . is the little baby spider gonna cry?" Hate-Monger mocked.
"No . . ." Arachne whispered. "The little baby spider is gonna make you cry."
"I'm shaking," Hate-Monger taunted.
Arachne seemed to disappear from sight, and even Hate-Monger's senses had a hard time registering her. When she emerged clearly, she did so with a punch to Hate-Monger's jaw, sending him flying. He tumbled onto his feet, looking at her with an expression that might have been surprise had it been visible. To her surprise, he chuckled with a dissonant calm.
"What's so funny?" she asked.
"You can still hit. Guess not all the power was in that thing after all."
"How is that you're walking again?"
"Thank the Red Skull. He saved me. He gave me this." Hate-Monger gestured to the protoplasmic suit he wore. "Like it? It's a pharmaceutical symbiote, a living antivirus. No sickness can touch me without meeting its end. And I will use this to cleanse this country, this world, of the mud plague."
Arachne spat. "You're still just a warped piece of gutter trash."
Hate-Monger lunged at Arachne, but Arachne grabbed his outstretched arm and spun into a throw that knocked him into a tree. Hate-Monger managed to grab the tree trunk and flip up into a crawling position on it, springing off it to attack Arachne again. Arachne once again appeared to vanish, although his senses were still able to vaguely detect her, and reappeared kicking him from below. She proceeded to kick him repeatedly, each kick pushing him higher into the air, and then she twisted around and elbowed him in the back with such force as to send him crashing to the ground.
"How are you doing this?" Hate-Monger asked.
Arachne's darkened lips, an almost purplish black, quirked into a smile. "I've embraced my inner predator. And it's a far stronger predator than you."
Hate-Monger snarled, rising to his feet before Arachne. "You . . . miserable . . . c#&!"
Arachne caught Kaye looking at her, the older girl mouthing, "Kick his ass." Arachne's answer was to wink at Kaye while sticking up two fingers in the "V for Victory" pose . . . just as four ethereal spider legs grew from her back and pinned Hate-Monger.
"Let go of me, bitch!" he yelled.
"Sure," Arachne conceded, and used her ethereal spider legs to toss him aside. She began walking toward her family and the Red Skull. "Let them go, Skull."
"If you insist," the Red Skull answered. He unsnapped the hobbler cuffs and the flexicuffs from Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins and Kaye, setting them free. When Arachne's eyes widened in surprise, the Red Skull just looked at her steadily. "Your death was the contingent upon which this alliance between myself and Hate-Monger rested. Since you defeated him, this alliance is now over."
Hate-Monger started to rise again. "You can't do this to me, Skull!"
"Watch me," the Red Skull coldly responded. At that moment, Hate-Monger dropped onto the ground, unmoving.
"What did you do?" Arachne asked.
"I told his antivirus that he was the cancer," the Red Skull explained tersely. "I leave it to your feeble imagination to come up with the details." He turned to walk away.
"This isn't over, Skull," Arachne declared.
"Yes, yes, the standard heroic retort to the dastardly villain who just saved her life." The Red Skull's tone was coldly dismissive. "Grow up."
Arachne would have gone after him, but she was dissuaded by Kaye's hand on her shoulder. "It's over, Audrey. We're back together. That's all that matters."
"Yeah . . ." Audrey murmured. "Except the house kinda blew up."
"I have a sister in the other borough," Mrs. Hopkins interjected. "We'll stay with her until we can get back on our feet."
"And while we're staying, we're going to have a long talk about some things," Mr. Hopkins added.
"You mean the Arachne thing, right?" Audrey surmised.
"In a word, yes," Mr. Hopkins confirmed. "But you're still Audrey to us."
End Notes: There you have it. The Venom symbiote is gone, but whether it's for good or not is something entirely up to my discretion. The "pharmaceutical symbiote" was, for those of you who've been following "New Ways to Die," inspired by Anti-Venom. This chapter, though, was pretty much an excuse for me to wrap up the lingering conflict between Arachne and Hate-Monger, introduce some new villains, and set up Arachne's new status quo and a plotline involving the spider totem she's now tapping into. In the upcoming chapters, you'll start seeing a little more of the supernatural aspects of the Marvel Universe, you'll find out what became of Cuayin and Callisto/Mayday after the end of the invasion, and you'll experience the return of the techno-virus in an even more insidious form. Until next time, make mine (and yours) Marvel: Tomorrow!