They took his face away the day he was captured. They shoved him this way and that way to take pictures, capture his fingerprints, and sit him in a box. They chained him. Not the chains that glittered in the light. Not the chains he’d draped around his neck, wrists, and waist for fun. They took his chains away and replaced them with theirs. Cold.
For hours, they tried to get him to talk. Why? Why? Why? What did his boss offer him? How did it start? Questions. Too many questions. They sat out of reach on the other side of a stupid table he couldn’t flip. He ended their questions easily. All it took was to smash his head on their stupid table until he bled.
Then they held him down while a paramedic tended to him. They gathered in a circle, discussed it, and threw him in a cage with drunks, losers, and crackheads. It didn’t take more than a half hour to sink his teeth into one of the crackheads. They gave him his own cage. All for him. King of the cage.
No one fed him in his cage, though. No one came to visit, to talk. An entire day passed alone. It was boring but acceptable. He slept through most of it on the bench built into the cage wall. It took an hour to get a bathroom break. He smirked while rocking a long, relieving piss with a gun openly carried behind him.
He refused to pull his pants up just to screw with the pig in his dark blue costume. If they took his face away, he’d make a new one. A mask so strong it was unbreakable. One that smirked instead of cried. A pair of eyes that insulted them. Eyes that reminded them they were nothing.
They forced him against the stall wall. One yanked his pants up for him, so he farted on the guy. His laughter echoed through the men’s room, but the stink lasted far longer. It seemed fitting. Pigs love shit.
They tried to make him walk back to his private accommodations. He refused, letting his body go slack and drop to the floor as he’d done as a child to get his way. They picked him up, struggling with the gangly, heavy weight of his six feet and a hundred eighty pounds. He was jostled, hoisted, dragged, and adjusted.
They didn’t like it when he bit the badge on one of their silly costumes and yanked it free, tearing the fabric it was pinned to. He reveled in the ache of fresh bruises after they beat him and tossed him into his cage. His tongue ran over his teeth, feeling one chipped when they took his prize away. Whatever. Now he had a more jagged bite.
Smirking ever still, he crawled onto his bench and stretched out. To the pulse of throbbing injury, he fell sound asleep and dreamed of prying his chains off. He’d break the bars of his cage with his bare hands, fight those lazy pigs off and get his hands on a gun. Then, the real FUN could begin.
He woke to clanging on his bars. His scalp was on fire. His nose felt clogged. The warm pulse of pain in his torso and limbs now drummed behind his eyes like spikes driven by hammers. His skull threatened to crack open, split, and erupt melted brains. The high was gone. Everything hurt.
He rolled up to sit, glaring at the pig banging on his bars. The world swam, and his skin turned clammy. Vomit bubbled up his throat and spilled from his mouth; he aimed it at the floor. Stomach heaving, he spewed filth across the cold stone before him. When it was over, he burped, snorted rockets of snot to clear his nostrils, then sat back and smirked across the cage.
They didn’t take the bait this time. Those pigs threw a lamb before him instead. A little girl in a wally world suit jacket, pencil skirt, and pumps. They flanked her from behind, watching him as the lamb stuttered and stumbled over his “rights” and “proceedings.” He imagined defiling her, choking her with her own stockings. All the mad fun things he’d watched on porn sites, just without the paid actress pretending.
The only time he paid attention was when she gagged. He liked that sound. He liked the way her face paled, and her throat twitched. His virulent gaze sharpened with focus, observing the way her eyes kept sliding toward the pool of noxious vomit between them. It excited him.
“Due to the circumstances of y-your refusal t-to..uh...to cooperate and…and…and…” She lifted her hand to her face, hiding her dismay behind it. “...uhm…misbehavior, your uh…case was heard without your…your…presence and y-ouuuu will be..uh..” She drew in a quick gasp of putrid air and forced it all out quickly. His smirk widened.
“You’ve been sentenced to Gowanda to serve the full term of your incarceration, no less than fifty years. Thank you.” She hurried out, pushing past the guard to her left. Her escape was so fast that she almost lost one of those pretty little pumps.
“Bye-Bye,” he said, holding the smirking mask despite the thundering pain rippling through his head.
The pigs tried to hide their surprise. They sucked at it. He turned his mask on them, glancing down at the vomit on the floor. His smirk widened just a little bit more, sharp at the corners. He inhaled slowly through his nose, using the agony to distract him from the stench. Perfect Mask.
“So, which one of you’s cleaning this up?”
They didn’t. They closed the cage and locked it tight. Whatever. No one would break him. He flopped over to lay on the bench, breathing through his mouth to avoid the stink of vomit.
Every minute that passed, he felt worse. Flu-like. His skin crawled and burned with an icy tingle. His stomach heaved, twitching no matter how hard he clenched up to control it. Every little sound beyond his cage invaded his ears and stabbed at his mind. Hornets. Those damned pigs and their chatter. It felt like hornets buzzing through his skull.
They came for him with stupid-looking booties on their shoes, sloshing through the congealed puke. He was dragged through his own filth. Men with plastic gloves stripped him and showered him. He lapped up the warm water raining down, wetting his dry mouth like a content dog with a sprinkler while they sponged him down.
Just for good measure, he attacked them. They beat him, but he could barely feel it under the detox stress his body was going through. They forced orange pants and a shirt onto his body, strapped someone else’s shoes on his feet then restrained him again. He was dragged, smirking, through the Halls of Justice and out to meet his transport. “Weirdo won’t walk on his own.”
“Careful. He’s a biter.”
“Dude literally puked everywhere in his effin’ cell.”
They carried him onto the bus, strapped him down on a metal bench seat, chained him to the floor, and he was off on an adventure. The bus rumbled. No one talked. The last time he’d been on a bus was for school. He remembered terrorizing the other kids. Stealing from them, harassing them. He remembered yanking the skirt off a band geek and making fun of her granny panties. The way she cried, though. There was nothing so beautiful.
Tragedy. That’s what they called him. The scourge of Eastbrook. Leader of the Deadlords. He draped himself in leathers and fishnets, silvered chains and spikes. But there was no finer crown than that white, sad-faced mask Comedy gave him the day they met.
He’d stared at it. It was too perfect, too pure. Sorrow should be a broken thing, beautiful in its ugliness like that pudgy little band whore he’d pantsed. So he smashed it right in front of Comedy’s creepy, smiling, laughing face. That moment, he saw what Comedy saw. Looking down at the broken pieces of porcelain. He had a new one made for him. One of his little artistic goth girls painted a new mask with shatter lines. Only then was it perfect.
But they took it away when they arrested him and Comedy. His pressured mind recalled the moment that girl stripped his face from him, the way she looked at him. Her soft face, one he’d bruised more than once, scoffed like she was special. Better than him. A few weeks before, she was begging to join them. Oh, how he’d planned to make her earn her place at his feet.
Suddenly, just because she’s got superpowers? Now, she’s special. Now, Comedy’s telling him he can’t have her. How she has a better purpose than bent over. Such bullshit. He should’ve gone with his instinct and beat the hell out of her when she wasn’t looking. A steel bat to the windpipe would’ve shut her up good.
His thoughts drifted, uncontrolled. He imagined pouring molten metal down that braindead boy scout in blue’s throat, just to see if his insides were indestructible too. He’d watch that kid boil from the inside out, then take his blue mask and wipe his ass with it after a good burrito shit.
The other one? The homeless kid? Tragedy didn’t care about. Sure, he was part of wrecking their plans, but Henry and Comedy both focused on him so much, and he didn’t know why. Still, he wished he’d emptied the clip of his rifle into that dirty prick. So annoying that he hadn’t managed to kill any of them that day at the park.
Amy. Shriek. Whatever she called herself now. He hated her the most. She beat the crap out of him and Comedy in that jewelry store. All because of her stupid screaming powers. Without them, he’d have won, and they’d be on a beach somewhere getting crazy high right now. If he got free, she’s the first one he’s going after.
That seemed impossible now. No vengeance. No closure. No more painted girls to make pretty with his fists. No more parties with tricked-out rides and forty-ounce bottles. All because of that traitor.
The hours passed in the bus with dreams of cruelty, but despite the majesty of his sadism, they were empty fantasies. By the time that bus passed through the barbed fence into Gowanda Prison’s courtyard, he was well and truly brimming with rage. His body shook with it. Or he was getting the shakes. He preferred to believe that his anger was boiling over.
The guards came for him, unhooking his chain from the floor. He refused to stand, twitching and tweaking but with his mask in place. Hard, toxic eyes and a thousand-year smirk. They spent five whole minutes yelling at him, trying to intimidate him. He ignored it.
One grasped him, hauling him off the bench. He bodychecked the guard, going for the man’s throat with his teeth. Another pulled his head back by his black hair, wrapped an arm around his throat, and subdued him. He stared ahead at those before him, smirking ever still.
They saved him for last, chained to a wall in the processing area. He watched the other inmates trudge through the lines, obediently following orders like sheep. Pathetic. He wasn’t afraid of the pigs or their guns. They’ll see.
They’ll all see.
They unchained him, and he exploded with violent rage, thrashing and shoving despite the bonds that limited his arms and feet. The guards didn’t engage with it at all, stepping back and pumping electricity from tasers through him. It was excruciating. He lost control of his body, seizing up.
More pigs crowded around him on the floor. He watched himself injected with a needle. He felt them drag his body through processing. Stripped down, sprayed with a hose like a dog turd on the sidewalk, then redressed. The drug coursing through his veins soothed that itching, scratching sensation in his brain, but his limbs felt like lead.
They left him on a mat on the floor, drooling and limp, until sedation began to wear off. Groggy, he pulled himself up to sit on the mat where he’d been ignored. A man checked his vitals, easily avoiding the lazy way his arms flopped and waved about to try and grasp at him. He wanted to break that pig, but his body wouldn’t listen.
Hands grabbed him. He tried to put his feet under him and exert control, but he couldn’t feel them properly still. Loose weights at the ends of noodle legs. They flopped and rolled over each other as he was dragged from the processing center’s dismal fuzziness into sterilized halls. Loud buzzers disoriented his cotton-filled head.
The more he fought for control, the more he won his legs and feet over. Dragging turned to stumbles that soon became some semblance of steps, and with his head full of sedative but his body responding to impulses again, Tragedy’s wild mind grew excited. His debut was at hand, and he was SO HIGH.
They shoved a pillow and a blanket into his hands. He threw them down. They hit him with their sticks, but he couldn’t feel a thing and laughed. Idiots. They yelled at him, but their words meant nothing.
He’d won. They buzzed another set of doors and threw him through them. His legs buckled, and he skid across the floor. Lurching up, he found himself with a full audience in the common area of this prison ward. Men stared from the bolted-down tables on the floor. They stared down from the railings above. Gray metal cylinders.
“WOOOO! They got some good shit here!”
No one cheered.
His poison-filled eyes swept about, seeing only blank faces looking back at him. He scoffed, waving his middle finger about. His arm still felt heavy, underwater, but he forced it to comply just to get his point across. Triumphant, he willed his legs to stride.
The room then ignored him. Heads turned away, and quiet conversations resumed after the disruption. He drifted towards a table, only to find a muscular, tattooed, black arm barring his way to taking a seat. He scowled at it.
“Fuck off, skid.” The arm’s owner growled.
A thought flashed across Tragedy’s mind. His body followed it without a second thought. With a burst of speed he had little control over, and the power of someone so out of his mind that he restrained nothing, the black, tattooed arm was grasped hard. He drove his knee into the elbow until he heard it snap.
The mask formed on his face, a simple smirk, and wild eyes while the owner of the broken limb let out a heavy roar of pain and pulled his arm to his chest. Faster than Tragedy expected, the maimed bear of a man surged from his chair with a haymaker that made the world spin out of control for Tragedy.
He hit the floor, laughing. Blunt, heavy objects rained down on him from every direction. They barely hurt, but he found himself unable to recover and get out from under them. He curled up, cackling through the table’s worth of men stomping him into the concrete. It ended with a siren blare and a voice crackling from loudspeakers in the upper corners of the common area.
The heavy thud of feet stopped mashing down on him. He tried to get up, but his arms resisted. With grit and bloody teeth, he forced his body under control and finally trudged upward. A single moment of victory came when he raised his bruised head to smirk all around him, then the pigs threw him back on the ground and sat on him.
They dragged him from the common area and through more sterile hallways with buzzing doors. He laughed through each one, spraying red drops on the white floors and black shoes of the men carrying him. It was all so stupid.
Back in a box he went. A small box with no lights and nothing to sit on. The hatch slammed shut, echoing in and out of his disoriented head. Sitting against a wall when he found one, he grinned. Now everyone in here knew what everyone out there in the world knew. He was the predator here. The Alpha.
They fed him for days while he languished in his new box. The food was awful, but the feeling when those sedatives wore off was much worse. He puked in a corner, sitting across from it this time as the stink filled his small box. His head swam. His skin froze, and he scratched at it like every inch was peeling from sunburn.
Still, when he got out of this box, he’d run this prison like the Deadlords.
They let him out once a day for the latrine. To shit, piss, shower, and clean up in fifteen minutes or less. He didn’t like that. Trying to hold it when his brain throbbed did not feel good, so he tried to knee one of the pigs in the crotch for putting him through that.
They didn’t like that. Another round of beatings and electricity left him limp, and they dropped him in his congealed pile of puke just for good measure. Fair seemed fair. He’d get them back for it one day. Everyone paid his price in the end.
Solitary came to an end, and those pigs flanked him, ready to pummel him if he stepped wrong. They walked him back to his ward in silence. The doors buzzed, opening. He strode through them with his head high and virulent gaze watching the fearful respect of his fellow criminals.
There was none. No one looked. No one acknowledged him.
Tragedy’s smirk faltered. Where was the praise? Where was the applause? He broke a man’s arm for crossing him! It was such bullshit.
He turned to the opened doors behind him, brows low with anger. “Where’s my fucking cell?”
“Twenty-Eight. Right side, upstairs. Down the end,” said one of the two guards. He caught them glancing at each other, recognizing that patronizing effort to not laugh at him. Assholes.
He stormed to the stairs, watching all around him for some sign of recognition. The more he did, the more it seemed that every man and guard turned their head away instead of towards him. Alone, he stomped up the steps and turned the corner. Every inmate he passed ignored him, only to turn around and walk calmly into their cells after he’d gone by. That didn’t feel right.
He reached his cell, eyeing the guard at the security door directly outside of it. The pig stared straight ahead like one of those puffed-up British sentries. Being ignored grated Tragedy’s nerves, frayed as they were from another forced detox in solitary. Fists clenched, he walked through the open frame of bars and flopped on his back onto the cot inside.
His eyes closed, considering the next steps. What the hell would he have to do to get these assholes to fear him? Kill someone?
His eyes drifted open. The guard at the security door was gone. He frowned, lifting up to sit and gaze at the empty space outside his cell. The ward was dead silent. He knew why. Revenge.
“Sup, Skid.” said the inmate he’d maimed, strutting into view outside his cell. Four of his friends stood behind him.
Tragedy rolled his eyes, throwing his feet off the cot to the floor to stand up.
“How’s the wing, Big Bird?” he said, mask set in place again.
The fight lasted ten seconds. Five men crowded his tiny cell and boxed him in. He fought hard, punching, kicking, and biting, and scratching until they overpowered him. What those men did to him that day, as every man in the ward did to him for ninety days afterward, was unspeakable karma.
The whole ward ignored his muffled screams, the choking, gagging sounds. He did not submit to all that was done to him, yet the blood spilled did nothing to lessen the brutal humiliation. The guards turned a blind eye out of cruel retribution or disgust.
And each day this went on, Tragedy became more feral. If the plan was to break his spirit, that plan failed. Once a week, the staff was forced to suit up and drag him from his cell, thrashing and fighting until sedated, to wash him, clean his quarters, and tend to his gruesome wounds. They were forced to leave food at his cell door because he refused to leave the confines of it to eat.
By that third month, the staff had a change of heart and began to crack down on the behavior they previously allowed. The guards assigned to the door outside his cell traded shifts more frequently, their conscience weakened by standing beside the small, barred room while he huddled in its corner and glared at them like a wounded animal. More than one submitted papers for reassignment, but no one talked about what they’d allowed.
A few days later, a visitor came. Orders from on high gave “special clearance” to enter the ward rather than force him out of his cell and risk another incident. The young man, not much older than Tragedy himself, who walked through the ward’s entry doors wore a plain gray suit, white shirt, and pale blue tie.
The strangest thing about the young man in the suit was that he was bald. Not shaved. Bald. No facial hair, no eyebrows, not a single hint of a strand on his shiny, round head. His skin was ashen in a somewhat sickly manner as if the pink luster of health was stolen. Despite this, his eyes were vividly blue behind a pair of thin, silver, designer-framed glasses. Though tall and more lean than any other man in the ward, Tragedy included, he showed no concern with being surrounded by violent repeat offenders whatsoever.
Calmly, he walked to the stairs and ascended them with his back straight. With equal peace of mind, he turned the corner and passed by every cell on that row without sparing a glance at the man inside. He stopped at the cell door where Tragedy perched in his corner. It was closed on purpose.
A sigh released from the bald man’s dark lips, visible like breath in winter even though the temperature of the ward was an even sixty-five degrees.
“Open the cell,” he said softly with a touch of annoyance behind it.
The guard did as told, contacting the control room, which unlocked Tragedy’s cell door. It cranked back on automated rails. Tragedy sneered, baring his teeth. The bald man simply stared at him, unperturbed.
“You can say one word. Yes or No. Any other word than one of these two? I leave without you. If you say No, I leave without you and do not return. If you say Yes, we leave together. Nod if you understand me.”
Tragedy did not nod. He gave the suited doorknob his middle finger.
“This is your only chance to leave here now,” replied the bald man, though he sounded as if he didn’t care one way or another.
Tragedy stared hard at the other man, entertaining mad thoughts about clawing his smug face off, ripping out his trachea, then pissing in the hole. Still, he could think of only one reason why someone would arrange his removal from prison. Black Sector. Henry Devonshire’s pet project.
Maybe the old psycho got free? Did that mean Henry wanted him back in the organization? Did he even want to go back to them? Anything was better than this. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a chance to break free of them…or kill them.
Slowly, Tragedy stood up from his corner. Muscles, now used to hunching and huddling, protested the strain of being upright fully, leaving him bowed and breathing through the delicious pain coursing through his extremities. His eyes never lost their rage, though.
“Fine. Exit the cell and follow me,” said the gray-skinned bald man, turning away to walk back from whence he came.
Instinctual fear caused hesitation. Tragedy stood, staring at the open cell door. Beyond it, he would have to do the one thing he’d refused to do since the abuse began: A walk of shame past his torturers. To pass by the eyes of the men who violated his body over and over again. And yet, that one walk ended in freedom from this place.
He put his mask on, ignoring the limp that made his attempt to stride look more like a staggering shuffle. Following the bald man up the row from his cell, he fought every instinct to flinch from the eyes of the men in those cells. With each cell’s passing, that instinct turned to anger. Going by the last few cells was a test of self-control. He wanted to rip through the bars and tear them apart, but he just…wasn’t strong enough.
He shuffled down the stairs and out of the ward when the doors buzzed and opened. He limped through the white, sterile halls and onward through the processing center's drab, lifeless gray out into cool, open night air. In the months he’d been here, he took no yard time. For a moment, the open world beyond those prison walls was overwhelming.
“Get in the car, Zack.”
He’d not heard his name for a long time, a lot longer than his time here in Hell. It pierced his mind, revolted him. He lowered his virulent eyes to the bald man and sneered. “My name is Tragedy.”
Out here in the cold, the bald man’s sigh did not release a plume of steam. He opened the back passenger side door of what Tragedy knew to be a Black Sector SUV. His suspicions confirmed; Tragedy limped up to the open door and hoisted himself inside. But first, he told the obnoxious bald man what he could go do.
Unphased, the other man closed the door behind him and opened the passenger side door to get in. When closed, he strapped into the seat and gave the driver beside him a curt nod. As the vehicle rumbled toward the gate, which was slowly drawing back to allow them exit, the bald man spoke.
“Rest if you want, it will be a long drive.” “Fuck you, cueball,” Tragedy answered.
“Tyler or Zero-K if you prefer stupid nicknames like Tragedy.” Tragedy’s brow raised. He resisted his curiosity for as long as he could, but the question burned inside him. “...What’s your stupid nickname mean?”
Dispassionately, Tyler answered. “Zero Kelvin, the lowest limit of the thermodynamic temperature scale. Absolute Zero.”
Tragedy smirked, his mask returning again. “Sounds right. Absolute zero personality.”
“Says the prison bitch.”
Tragedy exploded, rocketing from the back seat in between the two men up front. His hand shot out ahead and arced back for Tyler’s throat. Fingers latched around the hardened contour of his trachea and dug into the gray skin layer overtop. The driver dropped a hand to his belt, reaching for his side arm. Tyler calmly lifted a hand of his own, indicating with a casual raise to stop the driver from interfering.
“Say that shit again…,” threatened Tragedy.
His hand began to ache, fingertips turning purple. A purple that spread up each digit quickly to change the color of the knuckles too. That ache became unbearable, a whole new pain Tragedy had never endured before. He grit his teeth, fighting against the overwhelming need to pull back. If he could just get enough control through to squeeze, he could kill this man…but they wouldn’t respond. With a snarl, he pulled his hand back and threw himself back into his seat with a huff.
“Fuck is this shit?” he growled, shaking his hand out.
“My power to generate radical changes in the thermodynamic scale of things I interact with. In moron terms, I can give you frostbite in a matter of seconds.”
Tragedy groaned, closing his hand into a fist to try to warm his fingertips back up. He stuffed that fist down his pants, settled between his bare thighs. “I get it, dick. You look like a popsicle.”
Slowly, Tyler twisted in the confines of his seat belt so he could peer back around his chair at Tragedy. “Do you want to become like me?”
“A frigid douchebag? No.”
“Do you want your own superhuman powers, moron?”
“Hell yeah, I do. I’m gonna kill every last piece of shit that crossed me.”
This response left Tyler closing his eyes for just a moment as if acknowledging Tragedy’s existence caused him physical suffering. He opened his vibrant blue eyes, spared one disgusted glance at the prisoner there then turned to settle into his seat again.
“Then shut up and wait for us to arrive.”
Tragedy smirked again, his mask fully settled in place. He leaned back in his seat, hand still tucked between his thighs while he daydreamed about what powers he could get and how he could use those powers to break the people he hated most. Every man in that prison ward in Gowanda. Shriek. Paragon. Whatever the sulking kid’s name was.
A question finally rose in his thoughts. “Hey, Rocketpop. You guys get Comedy out too?”
“No. Comedy was never incarcerated.”
“...that bitch…,” Tragedy snarled. “I’m gonna kill her too. Hang me out to dry.”
“Not what happened. I’d explain, but you wouldn’t get it.”
“Fuck you,” sneered Tragedy from the back seat.
“Unlikely,” said a bored Tyler. Tragedy sat back, frustrated but impotent. The long hours of driving with no stops to stretch or relieve himself only furthered his frustration, and the two men escorting him helped in no way. They sat in silence; the radio tuned to talk shows and news broadcasts softly while he rocked and twitched and shook in growing irritability. It was almost as bad as detox. Almost.
Arrival at the facility could not come fast enough. The empty plains-land highway they drove along guided the vehicle until it veered off a ramp and passed through multiple security checkpoints surrounding a large industrial complex with no visible signage. Empty parking lots. Smoke billowed from vertical stacks pumping white fumes up into the black sky.
As soon as the SUV stopped, Tragedy shoved the door open and leaped out. He took two steps forward, shoved his orange prison pants down, and urinated on the blacktop for a solid two minutes. Tyler exited the front passenger side with a steaming sigh, closing his door gently. He stood there, enduring the presence of the other man relieving himself with an empty stare straight ahead. The driver left them behind, walking into the automatic sliding doorway nearby.
“Ohhhh yeah…” Tragedy moaned, shaking himself before pulling his pants up.
“Are you finished?” Tyler asked, the pupils of his brilliant blue eyes widening with refocused purpose.
Tragedy lifted a leg, passing pent-up gas loudly.
“...Follow me,” Tyler went on, turning away to follow the driver’s path.
Tragedy grunted, his new smirking face affixed. He walked with his chin raised, ignoring the limp of his left leg and the ache from sitting bent for so long. He looked over the plain, unassuming exterior of the site. There was little to set it apart from anywhere else other than the raised stucco jutting out above and below a line of darkened office windows. He crossed the threshold behind Tyler, sniffing audibly at the cleaning chemical stink of an overly sanitized office. Bleach and Clorox. The “fresh linen” fakeness of carpet cleaner.
Awaiting him were two more men in security-issued business suits. Like the driver between them, they each wore an earpiece and stood in the same spread-foot militaristic manner with the same flat expression. Tragedy tilted his head, noting the tense lift of all six shoulders before him.
Here we go again.
Once again, he exploded into action without provocation. Charging past Tyler, who stood quietly still, Tragedy dove straight into the driver of the SUV in the middle. A flying tackle that the man was ready for only a half second too late. The two men fell, one on top of the other. Tragedy managed to take a bite out of the driver’s face with an inhuman, animalistic snarl before the flanking men drew stun batons from under their suit jackets.
His body contorted like a diver with the bends on impact with the prongs of both batons, sending electricity through both hemispheres of his form at once. As he was thrown back from the guard he’d bitten, Tragedy’s stunned mind barely heard the heavy sigh of Tyler one last time. They lifted his arms, dragging him across the fake-fresh carpet and into an elevator.
They tossed him against the wall like a discarded puppet, standing over him closely as each filled the elevator’s cramped confines. Tyler opened a panel on the wall, inputting a code he couldn’t see. The shift of gravity when the elevator began to move startled him. He twitched and jerked. The guards took no chances and shocked him once more to be safe. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like the guard he’d bitten kicked him in the face. Tyler said something to him, which made the angry man turn away while holding his bloody cheek.
Tragedy hoped his face stayed on, deep down inside.
They dragged him from the elevator, but he lost consciousness soon after. Awakening groggily, he was strapped to something under a big, round, bright hospital light. There was a plastic tube pressed into his mouth, the ends of it biting into his cheeks. He shook but couldn’t move his head, arms, or legs.
Still, that was nothing compared to what he’d endured. He felt fear and screamed at it, the sound muffled by the plastic bit jammed between his upper and lower rows of teeth. He struggled against the straps around his wrists and elbows, trying to assert control with forced freedom. He failed.
“Tragedy.” A voice said from beyond his vision. He knew that voice.
“Frrrrrrrrrrrk. Lrrrt me grrrrrrrrr!”
“No. By accepting our release, you agreed to the procedure. Now…” An older man’s face appeared, looming over him and blocking some of the bright light from above. It was scarred, craggy. A trim beard and goatee of gray that matched the spartan flat-top above his brow. It was the Commander. Henry’s right-hand man. “Take a deep breath and calm down. We’re going to begin.”
Tragedy listened. He had no reason not to. He was already restrained and getting what he wanted most. Superpowers. Air was pulled in through his nose in big, deep, whooshing draws. Maybe he’d be able to explode like a living bomb, destroying towns full of people every time he detonated. Or maybe he’d shoot laser beams from his eyes or his hands. Maybe he’d become unkillable like that Paragon asshat. There was a brief sense of relief to believe that he’d be THAT powerful when it was over.
Acidic touch that could melt their faces off. Making things so hot they incinerated like a reverse of Zero-K’s powers. Bone spikes as hard and sharp as a diamond. Claws that shoot from his hands and impossible regenerative power. Imagine the disgust and terror of watching your enemy’s head blown open by a shotgun, only for it to pull itself back together again. Metal skin. Incredible speed. All the murder and mayhem he could cause with any or all of those amazing abilities.
He felt the prick of an injection into his arm just above the wrist. Another one pierced the other side. Acid spread through his veins, corroding his arms up to the elbow and beyond. It was pure pain. So much pure pain, like his body was disintegrating one piece at a time. He blacked out.
There were no dreams. Only void. For a moment, he wondered if he was dead. Eyelids fluttered open, crusty with sinus goop in the corners. He slapped a hand over his face, index and thumb tips digging the sandy crud away. A harsh, coarse chuckle left his lips. Not dead, stupid. Not restrained, either. Sweet.
He sat up in the dark room, a hospital bed under him with the hard plastic rails pulled up. Machines and monitors dimly glowed behind him, beeping more and more as he stripped IV needles and monitor pads off his arms and chest. He looked at his hands, flexing his fingers open and closed.
He expected to feel disoriented, sluggish, and weak, but he didn’t. He put his hands on the rails, pushing himself up so he could bounce down the bed to get off it. The railing snapped like pretzel sticks in his grip when he pulled at it. He took the broken hand-holds with him when he jumped to the floor.
Tossing the railing pieces aside, he leaned to the side and shook one leg. A bag flopped on the floor, attached to a tube running up his pants leg. He grimaced, stuffing his hands down his pants to free the catheter. He barely felt the discomfort, lifting the leg to pull the tube from its cuff at his ankle. Cleared, he hopped, then settled into a cheery strut toward what he believed to be a bathroom.
It wasn’t. An empty closet was revealed. He stared at the wall behind the hanger rod, snorted a laugh, and spun on the bare balls of his feet toward the obvious exit of the room. His senses tingled, awakened, and heightened with the same majestic euphoria of being high without the fuzzy-headed feeling of vague disorientation that goes with a chemical substance.
He grasped the door handle, giving it a sharp, gentle turn, and it snapped right off. The other half fell from the hole on the outside, clattering on the waxed floor. Once again, he admired his handiwork before tossing it aside. Just how strong had he become?
Crouching down, his virulent eyes leveled with the hole where the door handle had come from. He peered through it, curious and amused. Footsteps clacked beyond the closed and broken door, coming closer. He held still, eyes gleaming with mischief. The excitement of a practical joke stirred, cranked up to a hundred by his new awareness.
A blonde woman’s head passed the hole, and he stopped breathing, watching what looked like a scientist or doctor in a lab coat lift the broken handle from her side of the passage. It was PERFECT. The moment she stopped to consider the handle, just as her eyes began to slide toward the door, she spied his peering back at her.
“Boo,” Tragedy said.
The woman shrieked, leaping sideways away from the door quickly. The handle fell from her grip, clattering on the waxed, white floor again. He grinned, laughing. The delight of a jumpscare well executed thrilled him, yet he inhaled deeply and caught a scent that stopped his cackling in its tracks.
“Oh shit…wh-what is that?” Tragedy asked, pressing his face into the hole nose first. Nostrils flared and flexed, audibly sniffing about like a pig snuffling for truffles. “It smells so good…like rare steak…or a banana split? No. What -IS- it?”
The delectable smell begged him to find it. Tragedy shoved the door off its hinges with a thunderous, echoing snap, thoughtlessly pursuing. The woman screamed again, pressed against the wall on her side, and curled defensively. Her head down, body shaking so hard that the white coat fluttered. She’d thought it a joke until the door flew off. Now, she was terrified.
And it was her Tragedy smelled. Not her perfume, not even really her natural scent, nor was it the floral, fruity vapors from her shampoo. It was her terror that filled the hallway like delicious popcorn still in the microwave. He tasted her fear all around him…and it was divine. He was drawn to it, to wrap himself up in it, to bathe in the sweetest musk. It made him ravenous.
Tragedy’s face twisted from a playful smirk to drooling desire. His eyes were wide with manic hunger, and he surged toward the huddled woman. She screamed again, covering her head with her weak, little limbs as if he were some sort of beast about to maul and eat her. It didn’t seem like a bad idea to him. That wave of her fear went straight to his veins like heroin.
“Pleeeeeeeeeeease…pleeeeeeeease, don’t hurt me…,” sobbed the woman, her pink skin practically emanating invisible wisps of scrumptious panic.
He felt empowered by it. His mind clear with a singular purpose. His heartbeat slow and steady, but his senses turned keen. A most tremendous high. And yet, he needed more.
Commander Pavel Gregoff stood in a dimly lit security booth, powerful, muscular arms in skin-tight wool crossed over his chest. His brown eyes, like smoldering wood, stared hard at the large screen mounted to the far wall. Underneath it, a broad desk housed smaller monitors and a keyboard resting before one of his security administrators. That man seated below the Commander kept his eyes down at his own screen, swallowing a lump in his throat.
The administrator closed his eyes for a moment, steeling himself. With three clicks, he turned the volume on the main screen up, filling the small room with the tortured sound of a woman screaming. In between her gasps for air to scream more, wet, grotesque cracks and thumps provided macabre percussion.
Gregoff stood resolute through it, watching the monitor without a squeamish flinch or a hint of delight. Beside him, Tyler approached from the shadows and came to stand passively beside the black-clad veteran. Gregoff acknowledged the younger man’s presence with a nod.
“He’s psychotic,” Tyler said openly, though his voice sounded indifferent.
“I am aware,” was the Commander’s gruff, growled reply. “Analysis”
“Baseline hyper-elevation of Norepinephrine, excited by some sort of olfactory stimulation when he interacted with Miss McCallum. His physical and mental acuity lept off the charts. Musculature density increased one hundred times the average of marines in peak physical condition. We’ve located the origination point in the pons of his brain stem. However, despite the mental acuity elevation, as you can see…he loses what little control he had when stimulated.”
“Mm,” murmured Gregoff. The screaming had stopped moments ago, but the almost rhythmic wet slaps, thumps, and cracks continued. Gregoff observed the carnage patiently.
“Sir. If I may speak freely for a moment?”
“He’s worse than a shark. The moment his heightened senses are triggered, he will not stop until the stimulant is neutralized.”
“I hope so,” Gregoff said plainly.
“Your plan, sir?” Tyler asked, matching Gregoff’s stoic disinterest.
“Tragedy.” The Commander stated, uncrossing his arms to reach for the administrator below him. He tapped the man on the shoulder. “Shut him down.”
Keystroke commands inputted into the system sent a signal wirelessly, executed upon a single tap of the Enter key. Gregoff watched Tragedy slump over the horrific mess he’d made. He turned away from the technician and the screens, pausing only to look toward Tyler. The ashen young man waited, back straight but demeanor empty.
“Take him down to the lower levels. I want to continue testing him.”